A very nice colony of oropendola birds was nesting outside our lab. We became accustomed to their comings and goings and admired their long, basket-like nests and gargling calls. They always seemed to come and go together and did so with much fanfare. One afternoon however, while the birds were away, three capuchin monkeys raided their nests, and we were lucky to see it. The capuchins systematically went to each one, inserted their heads and torsos into the long nests, pulled out the oropendola eggs, and ate them right there in front of us. It was quite shocking. Of course we were sad on behalf of the birds, yet at the same time excited to witness such drama.
Our days have developed into a pattern of servicing the traps in the mornings: picking up all the arthropods collected by the traps, returning to the lab and processing the specimens (cleaning, sorting, labeling), then each person going off in a different direction to use specialist techniques to collect their favorite group. I spend the afternoons surveying palms, heliconias and bamboos for their particular fauna of chrysomelid beetles.
One of the first things one realizes (anyone, really, but particularly an entomologist) as you walk around the field station is the sheer number of ants, not only individuals, but all the different kinds. There might be three species walking around on the windowsill. On the trunk of a tree half-a-dozen kinds are immediately apparent, and who knows how many are up higher. Most are minute, but quite a few are enormous, approaching half the size of your pinky finger. Then there are the army ants; these deserve your utmost respect. They will go wherever they please, and when they decide to use your bedroom floor as a superhighway you can do nothing about it but hope they keep off your mattress until the last one streams by.
Typical ground beetles (Carabidae) are predators that actively seek their prey and can be found in every imaginal habitat in a forest, from the ground to the canopy. I am looking particularly for tiger beetles (a particular carabid subfamily, Cicindelinae; ~2100 species). The colorful fast-running adults are active diurnal hunters.
Tropical forests exhibit the greatest richness of tiger beetles in the world; Peru has 79 species recorded and about 35 species are known in our present site. Tiger beetles can be good indicators of the quality of a habitat, and their presence or absence and diversity are being used to measure the environmental impacts of different human activities in terrestrial ecosystems.
It is easy to locate tiger beetle adults as they search for prey or wait in quiet environments where human traffic is limited. A great place to locate them is the edges of rivers or running water where they often construct small dimple shelters or burrows for their larvae.
Today is a big day: reviewing the available established plant plots in the area, relocating their markers (boundaries of edges and internal sub-quadrats), selecting a plot we will follow in the next few years, and setting up several kinds of traps to capture insects. One of the reasons arthropods are so diverse is because they divide any habitat into 1000s of microhabitats, with many insects specializing on particular aspects — flower feeders, seed drillers, stem and leaf miners, soil arthropods, root feeders, parasites, parasitoids, predators….an insect specialist must have an array of tools if they want to sample that ecological diversity.
Selecting the first one-half plot was a piece of cake but locating the internal markers was not so easy. There had been several fallen trees in recent years, and these gaps in the canopy create particular kinds of habitat for sun-loving plants and their arthropod associates. Walking around on foot is not so easy. We kept losing sight of each other, even though I was using florescent orange tape to mark our path.
After a sweaty but productive few hours, we had laid down malaise traps, flight intercept traps, colorful pan traps, and pitfall traps. Each one would sub-sample a slightly different group of forest arthropods. As all these traps were on the forest floor, we would not be sampling the canopy fauna so well this time but next year we will have canopy foggers and other canopy traps.
For some insects, you have to look for them during their most active part of the day. Arthropods may be most active during the day, at dawn and dusk (crepuscular) or at nights. So night walks are necessary for some species.
At night, armed with head lamps and UV torches (and a lot of bug spray), you can actually see tons of spiders and other nocturnal arthropods doing what they live for, i.e., eating, preying, mating, etc. without much search effort. During the daytime, you have to look harder for the various microhabitats; of course, it is easy see the orb weaver spiders as well as some other weavers and a few cursorial spiders but this is only a small portion of the total spider fauna.
On the other hand, at night, your headlamp lets you view the activity all around you: spiders on aerial vegetation, on tree bark, running on the ground, and if you play with the leaf litter, you’ll easily see critters moving around. That’s on 'normal' nights in any Neotropical rain forest but it looks like something is different tonight: None or very little activity the first night after the heavy rain this morning (at other times, an early rain should have promoted higher activity at night!). Surprisingly, we have not found any scorpions or adult tarantulas tonight. - Diana Silva, a curator of spiders at the Museo de Historia Natural
We awoke to rain....heavy rain..…that kind of Amazon rain where you can’t keep your eyelids open and that promises to last all day. And we are in the middle of the dry season! Well, this is time to recover from hectic preparations in Kansas, the long journey here, and to orient to our new home. This field station’s set meal schedule (6 am, 12 noon, 6.30 pm) allows all the current station residents to meet. It is a great opportunity to learn about other exciting research going on here. We meet a University of Toronto group studying ant behavioral ecology, a Washington University anthropology team following Saguinus fuscicollis weddelli tamarin monkeys, an Ecuadorean student enrolled at University of Utah and examining effects of insect herbivory on plant growth, a University of Costa Rica professor studying palms…..indeed, the diversity of investigators and research questions here gives a deeper appreciation of the rich ecosystem around us.
Our team passes the morning in unpacking, cleaning, and organizing our assigned lab space – the wet area near the sink where the alcohol and other chemicals will sit, and dry preparation areas for spider sorting, a small table for beetle work, and a long bench for Hymenoptera study. Diana and Malena establish a line of six mini-Winklers where arthropods that live in soil and leaf litter samples will be extracted in the coming days (some believe that this microhabitat houses a more speciose tropical arthropod fauna that the sexy forest canopy). After dinner, Dan, Choru and I set up the first ultraviolet (UV) light trap in front of my cabin, overlooking the Madre de Dios River Across the river, the forest canopy stretches in all directions to the horizon. After yesterday’s eye-opening view of the many changes of land use occurring in Peru, I cannot take for granted that this spectacular forest cover will stay continuous.
Entomologists don’t understand why insects are drawn to light, but UV traps are a neat system for attracting many insects from miles away. We don’t get a lot of biological data (e.g., no host plant associations) but we get many species that are otherwise difficult to get with other trapping methods. The insect fauna also seems to come in waves, with some crepuscular flying insects arriving early, then hairy moths coming very late. Predatory spiders also arrive to feast on easy catch.
We are finally in Peru for my third expedition. I visited alone previously to explore the diversity of chrysomelid leaf beetles and their host plants. During the first trip in 2007, I discovered how wonderful a field station can be, as opposed to expeditions involving daily travel from one campsite to another, hauling food, water, supplies, and, for me, tubs of live baby insects that I am trying to rear to adults before I run out of their food plant from the last site. (Baby insect systematics is so primitive that without the adult, I have no hope of identifying the species.)
But field stations are so luxurious – running water, bed with roof, meals even! This would be ideal for introducing students to fieldwork – I would not have to worry so much about feeding a team three meals a day. It is a dream to stay in one Neotropical location, and get to know the insect fauna, their host plants and all the life stages. Bill Duellman’s “Cusco Amazonico” offers such a view of the herpetology fauna of a site near my field sites, but such comprehensive works are rare in the insect world, and may not be achievable given insect species numbers. Amazonian Peru seemed perfect for long-term research and education.
In my 2008 visit, I learned of a massive road construction project, three parallel Trans-oceanic highways that will link Brazil to Pacific ports. Already, Andean people were migrating to the Amazon basin, in anticipation of the future economic boom. The scale of the construction is going to have significant impacts on southeast Amazonia, and probably at an escalated pace in comparison to the 1972 construction of the Trans-Amazonian highway across Brazilian Amazonia. Additionally, six dams are planned to generate hydroelectricity for the booming Brazillian market. My research on insects in this part of the world has a new urgency: I am facing the prospect of documenting species for the first time, and perhaps for the last time.
Students taking notes about a dinosaur skeleton at the Museo de Historia Natural in Lima, Peru.
The entrance to Museo de Historia Natural
For my third visit to Peru, I am developing a system of long-term sampling plots distributed along an elevational transect from the lowland Amazon to the Andes, up to ~3500 m. I can select plots already established by botanists who have been working here for about 30 years. It is an uncommon ideal to have most of the plants known in a tropical habitat before I start looking for the herbivores of those plants. Some of the highest diversity of plants and butterflies in the world are known from this part of Peru, so it is a better-than-good guess that the beetle diversity is also going to be tremendous.
I am also traveling with a team, which is different from my normal routine of traveling solo. That can be lonesome—not being able to share the highs of discovery, the exciting strangeness of new places, navigating unknown and unrecognizable foods, no one to help watch your mountain of expedition supplies at bus stops and airports.
My KU companions are Choru Shin from South Korea who has spent an intense first year adapting to KU and leaf beetle research. Dan Bennett is almost done with his Ph.D. dissertation on wasp systematics. I already feel the cluck-cluck maternal tension of hoping they have as good a time as I will. In Peru, we will be joined by Diana Silva, a curator of spiders at the Museo de Historia Natural and one undergraduate, Malena Vilchez, who studies tiger beetles.
Our first stop in Peru is Lima, the sprawling desert capital city of ~9 million people which was founded in 1535. We are meeting the rest of our expedition team, Diana, who is a spider specialist, and Mrs. Malena Vilchez, a student who is collaborating with the curation of the MUSM carabid beetle collection and is also a specialist of tiger beetles. The MUSM museum is 92 years old and is similar to KU’s Biodiversity Institute, with public displays and a research side. The museum “campus” includes static indoor displays, traditional dioramas, outdoor botanical walks and, most astonishingly, giant whale skeletons, the original fossils on display in the open outdoors.
Diana has already sent overland — a drive over the Andes Mountains and a 6-hour boat trip — to our field site all the chemicals we need to collect and preserve different kinds of arthropod samples. In the past, chemicals (e.g., DNA-grade ethanol) would have traveled with us on the plane. Today we also collect the important research permit that allows us to conduct research in Peru and we submit the application for an export permit that allows us to leave Peru with specimens.
We finished our field clothing ‘try-on’ this afternoon and have been told to report tomorrow (Weds) at 7:00 am. for our flight to the Ice. Of course, we’ve also been told that the weather is currently bad there, so we may not fly. Already, the ‘hurry up and wait’ that is so typical of Antarctic field work has started!
We arrived yesterday (Monday here) after our very long flight. Around midday, we took the bus into downtown Christchurch, visited the Botanical Garden and the Canterbury Museum. The weather is beautiful (as it’s spring here) and Christchurch is not called the Garden City for nothing. The gardens are spectacular! It seems every house has a neat little garden, some with roses blooming that are a half-foot across. We are too late to see the tree-sized rhododendrons, however, as this is later than we’ve left for the Ice before.
The Canterbury Museum had a spectacular exhibit of photographs from Robert Falcon Scott’s 1911 expedition to the Pole and Shackleton’s 1914-1917 trans-Antarctic expedition. Their ship was trapped in the ice in the Weddell Sea (first leg of their journey), crushed, and eventually sank. He and all his men survived by taking the life boats to Elephant Island (after dragging them across the ice) and then Shackleton and two others went on to South Georgia Island to get help. The Canterbury Museum had photos and artifacts (clothing, equipment, etc.) of the two expeditions and it was an amazing display. Makes you very grateful for high-tech synthetic clothing, helicopters, and aircraft!
Our field party (including the two researchers from Wisconsin that we hadn’t met yet) are a great group of people and we have had great fun so far, so I’m sure it will go well on the Ice.