Devin Bloom prepares and tissues a freshly caught fish specimen from the central market in Paramaribo. Photo by Andrew Short.
The first scientific expedition to Tafelberg took place exactly 69 years ago this month. Led by legendary botanist Bassett Maguire, the 1944 expedition took more than four months. Needless to say, the logistics of his expedition were a bit different than ours.
Using a small group of canoes powered only by paddles and long poles, he traveled upriver through numerous rapids and overland detours from Paramaribo up the Coppename River and its tributaries. With the help and permission of the local villages he encountered, he set out overland when the rivers became impassable.
List of supplies taken on the first expedition to Tafelberg in 1944. From the Journal of the New York Botanical Garden, volume 46, p. 287.
After 23 days of cutting trails with nothing but a compass for navigation, they reached the foot of Tafelberg. Did I mention they had more than 3 tons of gear that had to be hauled every step of the way? And that does not include additional food and supplies that were parachuted to them in the jungle from military planes both along the way and while on the summit.
Fast forward to 2013, and the travel that took his party weeks will take us less than an hour by helicopter. Correspondingly, we are working hard to ensure that our gear (and ourselves…) will “make weight”, as how much we can transport per helicopter run is extremely limited.
If you are curious about just exactly what such an ambitious 1944 expedition took to the field, here is list from a report on the expedition published by Maguire in 1945:
On a completely separate note, we collected our first specimens today. Taking a break from gearing up here in Paramaribo, Devin browsed the central market here for interesting fish, and picked up some freshly caught individuals to prepare as museum specimens.
The sun rises over the Central Suriname Nature Reserve, as seen from the summit of Voltzberg. Photo by Andrew Short.
Andrew Short is a National Geographic Grantee and assistant professor of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the University of Kansas. An entomologist by training and at heart, Short is currently in Suriname, South America searching for aquatic insects to study patterns of freshwater biodiversity that will inform both science and conservation.
Having climbed up through a layer of misting clouds, we reached the summit of Voltzberg just in time to see the day break over the surrounding rainforest. Sitting at the northern edge of the Central Suriname Nature Reserve (CSNR), Voltzberg is one of many imposing granite domes that pepper this ancient South American landscape. A massive swath of tropical wilderness twice the size of my home state of Delaware, the CSNR is almost entirely unpopulated and only accessible by canoe and bushplane.
While taking in the vastness of the landscape was a welcome break from our fieldwork routine that morning last July, my students and I had work to do: documenting the aquatic insects that live in the streams, waterfalls, and forest pools that surrounded us. Our research here, done in collaboration with the National Zoological Collection of Suriname, has uncovered dozens of new species and we’re only just gotten started. These inventories help us approach a number of bigger questions: How similar is this patch of forest to one 50 miles away? What are the ecological limits of these species, and what would happen if the environment changed? Can these insects help us monitor water quality?
We’re making final preparations for our return to Suriname (and CSNR) next week. This time, our target is more ambitious: Tafelberg — an isolated table mountain in the center of the reserve. Stay tuned for updates as our expedition gets underway!
Over the last few days, we finished our work in Amazonas and cross the Orinoco back to the Llanos region, staying in San Fernando de Apure. Kelly and Luis split from our group yesterday and headed back to Maracay; Luis has to fly back to New Mexico today, so he can teach tomorrow. The rest of us drove straight west and today we started our winding accent into the main Venezuelan Andes. Tonight we stopped for the day in Biscucuy, which is at about (a relatively low) 500 meters elevation. Over the next couple of days, we will cover some of the higher elevations, up to 3000 meters. The highest peaks near the town of Merida reach just over 5000 meters.
A few days ago, I arrived in Suriname for my second expedition of the year. I am working with some of the good folks at the National Zoological Collection of Suriname, including mentoring a student who is finishing her degree on aquatic beetles and water quality. The last few days we have been doing some local collecting via day-trips and I have been prepping for a more intensive expedition to the interior which starts on Thursday and will last for three weeks. We'll be lifting into a mountain range that forms the boarder with Brazil for a RAP survey, led by Conservation International. Should be some great beetles!
Costa Rica has been a blast! From collecting beetles in pristine rainforest to relaxing outside Kiri Lodge on a warm tropical night, Costa Rica has exceeded my expectations for an international expedition. Firstly, all the people we came into contact with were pleasant, generous people who were always eager to help regardless of our lack language skills. I am very impressed by the Costa Rican people (especially Laura our hostess from Kiri Lodge) and their geniality has added immensely to our overall experience
Secondly, the country itself is beautiful with its misty mountains and luscious rainforests. Our week in Tapanti National Park gave us a glimpse of the diverse fauna and flora that makes this country so ideal for research. Lastly, our collaborators from the Universities of Delaware and Costa Rica were all excellent, amiable researchers. The graduate students from Delaware were always ready to help me with identifications and their jovial dispositions made the trip very entertaining. Despite our lack of communication, the students from Costa Rica helped us set-up traps and collect while their advisor, Monika, was perhaps the most helpful and likable person we encountered during our trip. My time in Costa Rica has been the most memorable trip I’ve experienced and I can say with certainty that I will return to this halcyon country.
I know it sounds cliché, but it’s hard to believe how fast the last two weeks have gone by. I have made plenty of memories: from wading across the Rio Orosi, to scrambling around rock seeps in search of Oocylcus, to humming the Jurassic Park theme with Frazier as we bounced along in the back of a pickup as it hurtled through the rainforest. I know I will never forget my time here in Costa Rica. I left the United States, a young, naïve gringo, and soon I will return a slightly older, ruggedly unshaven, moderately less naïve gringo who has had some of the coolest experiences of his life.
Eve of departure
End of an experience
Soon I will return
Our driver, Leroy, slammed on the brakes. The large Bedford truck behind us carrying our gear and most of our crew ran into a patch of think mud and was now sunk up to its axels and listing to one side. Up to now, our three-truck caravan had snaked its way towards to our first base camp without any problems.
We are here in southern Guyana to conduct a rapid biological inventory of the Southern Rupununi Savannah (Read more). Luckily, after some digging, wedging, jacking, pushing, and winching, we were able to get it unstuck and get to the Kusad Mountains by mid-afternoon. An advance team with WWF (World Wildlife Fund) had arrived several days before to clear a spot for our base camp, which was mostly set up when we arrived.
Not wasting any time, the aquatics team headed out to do our first sampling at 6am just as the sun crested over the Kusad Mountains the next morning. The 10 of us were piled into a 4×4 pickup and headed to take water quality and fish and aquatic insect samples from the Takatu River, which forms the border between southern Guyana and Brazil. Fortunately this 2-hour drive was much less eventful than our arrival from Lethem.
As leader of the aquatic insects team, I oversee the sampling protocols and collection of several groups on which we are focusing: beetles, true bugs, dragonflies, and caddisflies. Over the next two weeks, we’ll sample rivers, streams, and lakes across the southern Rupununi. Combined with the data gathered by the water quality and fish teams, we can generate a holistic picture of the health of the region’s watershed.
Getting our Bedford truck unstuck. Photo by Andrew Short.
The “road” to the Takatu River. Photo by Andrew Short
The sun rises over the Kusad Mountains as the aquatics team leaves to sampling the Takatu River. Photo by Andrew Short.The “road” to the Takatu River. Photo by Andrew Short
Arriving at the foot of the Kusad Mountains. Photo by Andrew Short.
The fish team working in the Takatu River. The banks on which we are standing are in Guyana. The opposite bank belongs to Brazil. Photo by Andrew Short.
Today, an international team arrived in southern Guyana, near the boarder with Brazil, to conduct a rapid biological assessment of the Rupununi Savannah, a sprawling tropical grassland peppered with rock outcroppings and forested mountains. Sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) with assistance from Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC), our expedition will spend the next couple weeks capturing a snapshot of the immense biodiversity that occurs in this poorly known region
Our group has about 35 people, including scientists, students from the University of Guyana, and support staff (a cook, drivers, representatives from local indigenous peoples). We have 10 scientific teams covering a broad array of biodiversity: large mammals, small mammals, fishes, amphibians and reptiles, birds, plants, aquatic insects, ants, water quality, and indigenous resource use (I’m in charge of the aquatic insects).
After assembling in Georgetown, we flew down to Lethem this morning, Tomorrow, we’ll load up into large Bedford trucks (so we can ford the rivers) and head out into the savannah to our first site at the foot of the Kusad Mountains.