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!
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.
We signaled to the pilots it was a go. The helicopter descended into a small mountaintop clearing no bigger than a backyard swimming pool. The four of us strapped on our machetes, grabbed our duffel bags and hopped out of the chopper. One of the pilots gave me a stern look and held up four fingers–we had four hours.
With a turbulent swirl of leaves and branches, they were gone, and we were left standing in the middle of one of the world’s largest unspoiled jungles. On our right, the unbroken Surinamese forest undulated over low mountain ridges as far as we could see. On our left, over a deep valley, lay the same view, but those mountains belonged to Brazil- our position was literally on the frontier between the two countries.
We were on a recon mission for Conservational International’s Rapid Assessment Program (RAP), which inserts teams of scientists into some of the world’s most remote and unspoiled places. These teams, typically composed of field and conservation biologists as well as local collaborators, are tasked with providing a snapshot in time of the biological diversity and integrity of these amazing sites.
That particular day last March, we were standing atop a peak in the Grensgebergte, a mountain range so remote and rugged that it had never before been entered by explorers or scientists. Gathering the most basic data on the biodiversity and ecosystem services here allows us to contextualize the importance of these areas as well as detect potential threats.
Sometimes the results are alarming: despite this area’s remoteness, some water samples contained unsafe levels of mercury–possibly the result of air deposition from mining in neighboring regions.
With our short time ticking down, we got to the task at hand: could we establish a basecamp on the summit, and if so, where and how? And just in case we couldn’t make it back, we had to collect as much data on plants and animals surrounding us as we could.
The narrow, kilometer-long mountain ridge had nearly vertical granite walls, with clumps of forest sprouting from both ends. Ornithologist Brian O’Shea and I headed east, while botanist Olaf Banke and Johan, leader of a group of Wayana Amerindians that were assisting our expedition disappeared into the forest on the western flank.
A couple hours later we reconvened: we would establish a camp near the helicopter clearing in a stand of trees. Water was going to be a problem, we would have to plan on lifting it in via helicopter unless in rained.
After grabbing some plant and insect samples and deciphering some birdcalls, the helicopter returned and plucked us off the summit. We returned to a freshly-cut jungle helipad near our RAP team’s basecamp about 30 kilometers away and reported back to the dozen other scientists—with specialties ranging from mammals, ants, fishes, to primates and snakes— who were waiting for word of what we found.
The Amerindians huddled around my laptop to watch the video clips of an area even they had never seen. For the next week, we flew daily helicopter flights to our mountaintop camp where we found species no one had ever seen.
These RAP trips are special in that they bring authorities from so many different taxonomic groups together on one expedition. Field biologists are frequently only in the field with others in our respective disciplines—herpetologists with other herpetologists and botanists with other botanists for example.
On any one RAP, there might be specialists from a dozen different groups. No matter what you find in the forest, someone will be able to tell you about it. Our “science tent” (the tarp under which we sort and process our samples) is a constant hum of activity from 4am when the ornithologists rise to record birdcalls, to 1am when the mammologists close their bat nets.
And therein lies the power of a RAP: the biological snapshot we take is not just of this group of beetles or that group of fish, but captures a broad spectrum data that tells a much richer, holistic story about the diversity and health of the area.
This week, our team’s report on this first ever expedition to this region of Suriname was released by Conservation International. It was more than a year in the making (it takes a lot more time to prepare and identify specimens than it does to collect them!), and our team was able to document more than 1300 species in less than three weeks.
Dozens of those species are new to science—among them a new snake, 11 new fish, 6 frogs, and dozens of bizarre new insects. It’s trip like these that make one realize just how little we really know about the life around us.
Peering out over the jungles from the summit of Kasikasima, an isolated granite mountain in extreme southern Suriname. Photo by Andrew Short.
As we wait for the helicopter to return, we assist botanist Olaf Banke to press some plants specimens he collected during the recon. Photo by Andrew Short.
Ornithologist Brian O’Shea gets a first look at the bird life in the boarder mountains of southeastern Suriname during the recon. Photo by Andrew Short.
Exploring the Grensgebergte mountains, looking for a suitable site for landing site to establish a basecamp. Photo by Andrew Short.
A helicopter arrives as our freshly cut jungle helipad to ferry us into the Grensgebergte, a mountain range that has never been explored. Photo by Brian O’Shea.
I’ve mentioned waterfalls a few times in previous posts, but what I haven’t explained is one of the reasons we are always in close proximately to them: They are full of amazing beetles! Waterfall habitats (there is even a special term for them: Hygropetric) harbor a diverse and often completely unknown fauna of insects. This is not because these insects are rare per se, but because most entomologists don’t really look there when they are collecting.
So far on this trip, we have collected at least 10 new species of beetles in these waterfall habitats alone! While we don’t have nice photos from the lab of these particular beasts yet, here are some similar species of waterfalls in neighboring Venezuela:
After several weeks here at Tafelberg, it was finally time to head back to Paramaribo. We lucked out with the weather a second time and our helicopter lift back to the airstrip went off without a hitch. From there, we loaded up into two small planes and left Tafelberg and the wilderness of the Central Suriname Nature Reserve behind.
The next full week was spent in Paramaribo sorting and preparing our specimens. The plants have to be pressed and oven dried, the fish have to be sorted, and the insects need fresh alcohol and need to be transferred to new containers. We also gave a presentation on our preliminary findings at the Nature Conservation Division at the Environmental Ministry.
The highlights of those findings, a few of which I’ve already mentioned, include increasing the number of known fish from Tafelberg from 2 to 5, recollecting several extremely rare species of plants including a possibly new species of bromeliad, two possibly new species of frogs, and an exceptional haul of interesting aquatic beetles that includes many new species that we are excited to look at in more detail back in the lab.
A final sunset seen from the summit of Tafelberg before heading down. Photo by Andrew Short.
Loading up the planes at Rudi Kappel Airstrip on our way back to Paramaribo.
Jon Mol and Kenneth Wan (University of Suriname) examine some of the fish collections that were made with Devin Bloom back at the National Zoological Collection in Paramaribo. Photo by Andrew Short.
Andrew gives a presentation on the team’s preliminary findings at the environmental ministry in Paramaribo. Photo by Fabian Michelangeli.
Before I write any further, I want to introduce the excellent group of folks we have had on Tafelberg: We have three two-person teams, one each covering plants (Fabian Michelangeli and Julian Aguirre from the New York Botanical Garden), frogs and other amphibians and reptiles (Paul Obouter and Vanessa Kadosoe from the National Zoological Collection of Suriname), and aquatic insects (myself and Devin Bloom from the University of Kansas who also is also moonlighting collecting fish).
We are fortunate to have an amazing support team of five individuals of trailcutters, assistants, and a cook who allows us to focus all of the precious time we have on this mountain doing science.
We’ve spent several days exploring the area around our second camp at Caiman Creek. The botanists pursued a route into the nearby “Arrowhead Basin”, a large triangular depression in the middle of the tepui. After they establishing a trail, Devin and I followed them the next day, through the forest and down a narrow rocky chute into the basin. The sandstone walls of the basin in this area are precisely vertical and extremely tall.
It is along these walls that we made a few exciting discoveries: Fabian found a few rare plants he had been searching for—one of these species had not been seen since its first collection back in 1944! Literally a moment after he was celebrating his find not 20 feet away, I stumbled across a small brown blob crawling on a wet rock face.
But this was no ordinary brown blob—it was a new genus and species of aquatic beetle! I had collected on a different mountain in Suriname last year, but it is a rare find and I was excited to find it here too.
Not to be outdone, Julian came bounding back down the trail clutching a large, spiny plant- a bromeliad. He did not immediately recognize the species, though it had very distinctive flowers. Was it a new species? Too soon to tell, but maybe. At the very least it is a new record for Suriname. Next time, I’ll cover more of the exciting new insects we’ve turned up…
Looking out from the south rim of Tafelberg. The nearest road in this direction is more than 250 miles away in Brazil. Photo by Andrew Short.
Julian inspects an unusual species of bromeliad, that is at least new to Suriname and may be a new species. Photo by Andrew Short
Moment of discovery: In his left hand, Fabian clutches a species of Melastomataceae, endemic to this mountain, that had only ever been seen once before in 1944. Photo by Andrew Short.
Andrew and Devin collecting insects along the south wall of Arrowhead Basin. Photo by Fabian Michelangeli.
As we finished our biodiversity survey work around our first camp near the edge of the mountain, our trailcutters Mani and Uwawa spent two days opening a trail to our next basecamp at the center of the Plateau. Now that the trail is cut, it only takes about 3 hours.
Our second camp, a small clearing at the confluence of two large streams, was dubbed “Caiman Creek Camp” by a prior expedition because of the presence of these reptiles in the vicinity (we only saw one very unintimidating yearling). The day before our move, it rained. Hard. The creeks that we were going to cross had swelled to twice their size, and were nearly waist deep in some places. Not ideal for casual crossing let alone hauling lots of gear and food for 11 people.
To make matters more interesting, one of the main crossings is only a short skip from the edge of the plateau…losing one’s footing means you’re over a 600-foot waterfall. Initially, some of us stripped down and tied a safety rope to trees on each side, although this was not ideal when we’re carrying big loads.
Mani and Uwawa got to work immediately, felling a tree across some boulders in the creek and even tied a handrail using branches and rope made from stripped bark.
Along the trail to Caiman Creek, we passed the wreckage of small plane that had crashed on the summit more than 50 years ago. The pilot, Rudi Kappel, was killed and the now mostly-abandoned airstrip near the mountain was named after him. By late afternoon we had successfully moved all our gear and set up our second makeshift camp at Caiman Creek.
The following day, we started exploring the area round our second camp, which includes some really interesting terrain, including a sunken basin that has sidewalls that are themselves about 200 feet high. The botanists in particular found some really cool discoveries here I’ll cover soon…
Setting up our second basecame at Caiman Creek near the center of the Tafelberg plateau. Photo by Andrew Short.
Plane wreckage on the summit of Tafelberg. Photo by Andrew Short.
Our trailcutter Mani crosses one of the creeks on our makeshift log bridge. Photo by Fabian Michelangeli.
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 axel 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.