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.
We arrived in Puerto Ayacucho yesterday, the capital of the state of Amazonas. We will be staying here for a few days while we scope out streams in the area. This area has been particularly productive on past expeditions as there are a lot of rock slides — rivers that flow over large expanses of exposed granite, and do not have any substrate. These create very unusual habitats that foster very unusual insects. In fact, since these areas are rarely (sometimes never) visited for collections work, most of the things we see are new to science. For me, these are the most exciting parts of the trip. Imagine being the first person to ever see a type of animal for the first time, to observe what it does, how it behaves, where it lives. This happens many times here, and in this area, around 8 out of every 10 species we find will be new.
These are the exciting moments of discovery that give many of us a rush. In terms of water beetles, we will probably collect about 100 to 150 species on this expedition that do not yet have names. This is another reason we are collecting so much other information on the water quality, human disturbance, and other things. We also take hundreds of photos and copious notes. In some cases, the information we collect on some of these species may be the only record of their existence for the next hundred years or more, as these areas are rarely surveyed. Consequently, we try to take in not just vouchers of the insects, but also all the observations we can bear to record. On a totally random note, there is a local hot sauce here called Catara that is served with almost every meal. It is made mostly with yucca and the crushed heads of ants. It tastes OK, but I don't find it to be anything special.
We decided to leave the Llanos station a day early (today) as we were able to get the data we needed in the two days we have been here. We headed south where we reached one of the world’s great rivers, the Orinoco, at about 11 this morning. The Orinoco splits Venezuela almost in two equal northern and southern portions. The southern half is largely a vast, sparsely populated jungle. It is also geologically very distinct, being part of the ancient Guiana Shield and has completely different animal and plant life. And rather than being a flat pancake like the Llanos, southern Venezuela is an irregular collection of enormous ancient mountains and granite outcrops. Doyle’s “The Lost World” where dinosaurs survive on isolated table mountains was based on the formations here. After waiting on the ferry for a few hours, we were on our way on the southern side. We arrived in a small dusty town of Pijiguaos this evening where we will stay for two nights to collect in the area.
The main part of the expedition is now underway. This first leg of the trip takes us south across the Llanos, which are vast, mostly flat, open savannahs which cover a third of Venezuela. The region is dominated by huge cattle ranches. During the wet season (April-November), everything is largely flooded. Now, more than a month into the dry season, it bakes until crispy dry. Grass and brush fires zip around everywhere. Yesterday we arrived at a small station run by one of our collaborating institutions, the Universidad Central de Venezuela. This is a very basic BYOH (bring your own Hammock) place that has easy access to several local rivers and a healthy number of ponds and lagoons. Today we were able to collect insects in most of them.
This morning Jesus and I drove into Caracas to have breakfast with the director of IVIC (National Institute for Scientific Research). Coincidentally (and to our benefit), the director also happens to be an entomologist. We talked about our survey project objectives and what kind of linkages could be established with ongoing and future research being done by folks at IVIC. For example: how can we make the data we are collecting compatible and accessible with existing and future databases and shared resources. Currently, there is no single system in use in Venezuela (or for that matter in the US or anywhere else) for storing or serving basic natural history (=specimen) data, although some efforts are making headway (e.g., the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, or GBIF). The more specimen data we can get together from different sources and museums, the more it can tell us about myriad patterns and processes both in terms of the past (historical biogeography), present (establishing conservation priorities), and future (predictive modeling). This afternoon, we are having an expedition meeting back at the museum in Maracay to make sure we have everything and make some last minute preparations before heading out tomorrow for the main part of the expedition.
The last few days have been full of logistical gymnastics in preparing for the main expedition that will start on 8 January. After celebrating New Years in Maracaibo, Jesus, Mauricio and I spent 10 hours on the second of January driving to Caracas to pick up another collaborator, Kelly Miller, at the airport the next morning. Kelly is curator of arthropods at the University of New Mexico and a specialist in several water beetle groups. From Caracas, we headed to the city of Maracay (about 2 hours west) where the primary entomological museum in Venezuela (MIZA) is located on the agricultural campus of the Universidad Central de Venezuela. We spent the afternoon catching up with our colleagues and working out some trip details. Today, the group (with Kelly, now four in number) spent the day collecting in Henri Pittier National Park, which encompasses the middle swath of Venezuela’s coastal mountains. These mountains are kind of the last northern throws of the Andes. Running east-west and reaching more than 2500 meters in height, they form a huge wall between the Caribbean and this part of Venezuela.
We collected at a few rivers on the northern slopes that had been severely scoured by heavy rains two months ago. Some of them look as if a few bulldozers had plowed down the valleys in which they flow. It will be interesting to compare the insects we find here with what we find in other non-impacted streams in the area as well as track the recolonization and recovery of these streams over the next few years.
After a day of rest back in Paramaribo after our Voltzberg adventure, we loaded up the trucks today and headed for Brownsberg Nature Park, which sits atop a 1500 ft. mountain a few hours drive south of the capital (no unusual transportation required...). Upon arriving at the structure where we hung our hammocks, we had a surprise: A KU Jayhawk decal on the wall! If surrounding dates are any indication, it seems to be around 10 years old.
Last night was our final night at the research station at the base of Voltzberg. After breakfast, we packed our hammocks and made a pile of the food and gear the porters were going to carry. The porters arrived, packed, and started back to the boat and we followed about 15 minutes later. The whole hike took us a little under two hours which beat our time on the hike in by about thirty minutes. My sweat-soaked shirt felt like I had just taken it out of the washing machine and I couldn’t wait until we got back to Foengoe Island where a cold shower was calling my name.
Unfortunately, a shower would have to wait a while longer. Upon our arrival, the manager informed us that the water pump had broken, so we would have to get any water we needed from the river. I resigned myself to the fact there was no running water, so I hopped into the river for a much needed bath. It was glorious to scrub off three days’ worth of sweat and I came out feeling much better.
We woke up at 4 o’clock this morning and we’re on the trail shortly before 5 a.m. We were planning to reach the summit of Voltzberg to watch the sunrise. Of course, this meant we had to hike there in the dark and there is really only one way to describe pre-dawn jungle: pitch black. If you get stuck in the jungle at night, without a light source, you better just hunker down and pray for morning because you are in for one terrifying ordeal.
After about a thirty minute hike, we arrived at the base of Voltzberg. For the next twenty-five minutes, we scrambled over slick boulders, dodged a column of army ants (which zigzagged over our path no less than four times), tried our best to avoid prickly and spiny plants (which is difficult because it seems like every tree, bush, fern, and flower is armed and ready for battle), and silently hoped that no snakes would decide to fall on our heads. Once we had cleared the tree line, the real fun began. The next stage of our ascent involved scrambling up several hundred feet of algae-coated, dew-slicked granite (which rates about a 9.413/10 on the International Standardized Slipperiness Scale). However, that wasn’t all. The slope of the mountain was steep to say the least and I swear there were times when we were going almost straight up. The combination of the terrain and the exacerbating conditions made for a climb that was mildly nerve-wracking at times.
However, we did all make it to the top and almost right as the sun was breaking through the clouds. It was a truly magnificent and spectacular thing to witness with the clouds rising over the jungle and the fiery, orange sun rising next to the adjacent inselberg.
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!