Today was full of wow! It was another day of driving, hiking, sun, and awe in the vicinity of Russell Glacier. On the way there we spotted our first real live musk ox, an enormous hairy mound of beast that seemed to remind everyone either of Snuffleupagus, a bantha from Star Wars, or Ludo from Labyrinth. This was followed by our first caribou, a young one with tiny velvety nubs of horns that ran toward us, around us, and off to the river again.
We stopped for lunch at part of the glacier that ends in a pool which emptying out into the river next to a really nice beach. The wind off of the glacier was bitterly cold, but once we got within fifty meters of the glacier, it blocked the wind and made plopping down on the glacial till for a sandwich and a Coke absolutely lovely. We sat around for awhile waiting for the glacier to cave, but no such luck. Extra-special bonus: first Gyrfalcon of the trip!
As we drove on, we also spotted a flock of what else but Canada geese. Kind of annoying, since we see them all the time at home, but neat since they were the first Greenlandic Canada geese of the trip (does that make sense?). We also spotted another duck, this one closer and in better light, but still from a moving car—my guess would be a male pintail, but I may correct that in a later post…
At last, we arrived at a spot from which we could hike out onto the glacier. At first, it looked like huge, random piles of gravel and mud, but as we went father, jumping across a shallow stream, the crunch of ice underfoot and the suddenly visible infinity short snowy spires and cliffs let us know exactly where we were. There was an abundance of melt-water streams with tasty cold, clear water—unusual this early, or so I'm told. The two professors on the trip that had previously visited the glacier commented that they had never seen streams this large or plentiful on the glacier before. We also found a moulin, or glacial mill, which is a large funnel in the ice where melt water streams drain onto the glacier bed below. Tomorrow we're camping, so I’ll be taking a brief hiatus. Cheers!
This morning getting up early to look for birds, this time down by the rapids at the bridge, proved sadly fruitless. Except there were rapids, which was in itself neat.
After breakfast and through incredible serendipity combined with finagling by our project leader, we met with the United States’ ambassador to Denmark (which still retains some degree of control over Greenland), Laurie Fulton. She was on her way back from visiting a research facility further north, and graciously made time for us—and seemed genuinely interested and engaged! She is very involved in encouraging intellectual trade between the U.S. and Denmark. Denmark has been very committed to green technology since the seventies, and by sharing their ideas with the U.S., the U.S. need not reinvent the wheel. Likewise, she is trying to encourage researchers, especially those working in Greenland, to take on Greenlandic students and trainees to help elevate the level of education in the country, only one third of which are considered "educated." She was a very neat lady.
After that meeting, we had some time to kill, so a few of the other students and I went with Kees, one of the KU Geography professors that is along on the trip and visited Kangerlussuaq in the1980s, to find the Inuit ruins located near town. We did not find them. Instead we found a firing range, a caribou antler, and a very scummy pond with three minnows in it. Lunch at the airport was fantastic. Many kinds of cold cuts, delicious smoked and pickled fishes (salt cod and pickled herring!).
After lunch, we drove to NSF’s Sondrestrom Incoherent Scatter Radar Facility (we saw a couple of ducks in random lakes along the road, but they were all far away and horribly backlit. Curses!!). Our host there, Eggert, was the head engineer (from Iceland, wearing black socks, sandals, and shorts. He’s my favorite!) showed us around the facility, which shoots high-powered microwave and lasers into the atmosphere in order to measure fluctuations in the Earth’s magnetic field. There were huge magnets, transformers, and an enormous satellite dish that looked like something out of a James Bond movie (incidentally, it replaced an older dish elsewhere that actually appeared in GoldenEye!!). We also got to hear about the dangers of building on permafrost, which then melts and causes buildings to shift, windows to crack, and pipes to break, all things that tend to be a concern as summers increase in length and temperature.
Dinner was had at the Polar Bear Inn, home of the best Thai in town. For real, it was AMAZING—I had musk ox panang!! This was followed by a hike to Lake Ferguson, where we didn’t see any more new birds (goes without saying at this point), but we did find the Kangerlussuaq rowing club, a sign warning passers-by about musk ox, and a rock with a musk ox painted on it. Now it’s time to bury my head in the blankets and try not to imagine the sun sneaking in around the blackout shades. Till next time…
Morning in Kangerlussuaq was not much different from afternoon or evening—sun shining cheerfully away, temperatures of around fifty degrees, and a light wind keeping away the hungry swarms of Satan’s air force known colloquially as “mosquitoes”. I got up early so I could get a first crack at wildlife, Greenland-style. It turns out KISS is right on the Watson River, which was a lovely morning scramble down fine silt dunes and over glacier- and water-carved rocks. I got my first looks of the trip at Snow bunting, Common redpoll, and Northern wheatear. On the way to breakfast at the canteen by the airport (where we will be eating our dinners as well) I spotted a raven.
After breakfast, we explored “downtown” Kangerlussuaq, which is heavily concentrated in approximately ten utilitarian buildings near the airport. This included a trip to the “grocery store”, where you can find oranges, pineapples, a variety of canned fishes, salt-covered licorice, beet salad, and waders. Pretty much all of the written labels and signs are in Danish, which not an area in which I am proficient. My great achievement at the grocery store was finding frozen torsk, or Atlantic cod. This may be the closest I get to a fish on the trip.
We spent the day driving and hiking around northeast of town, toward Russell glacier. We got to frolic on the tundra, which was delightfully spongy—like running on a wet mattress. There were lots of wildflowers, moss, lichens, and Lapland longspurs. There was also evidence of ptarmigans, but none were to be found. Too bad, but I’ll keep looking. We also climbed Sugarloaf, from which we got some AWESOME views of the glacier and fjord.
We then travelled further upriver and got our first looks at the ice sheet, which still seems very unreal, despite the fact the 80% of the people at KISS are various types of geoscientists, desperate to get out on the ice. Some Danes just came back from an attempt to get to Summit, the base of ice sheet operations. They got all the way there, and had to turn back without landing because one of the airplane’s engines failed, which would have made taking off from the ice impossible. They’re still in a pretty good mood, and helped us translate the canteen menu for the week. Sky sauce is “the fat and proteins that drip off the meat during cooking, and congeal into a sort of pudding”, which is a much more interesting way of saying “it’s gravy”.
Of special note: talk around KISS is that not only has the yearly thaw of the glacier come two weeks early this year, but so have the mosquitoes and the wildflowers. Is it a signal of climate change? Only time will tell.
This morning we woke up at 4 a.m. in Schenectady, New York, after an uneventful day of travel there from Kansas. The Air National Guard picked us up at the hotel and took us to the base. Once they had corralled all the scientists into a little room in a warehouse, they showed us the C-130 safety video. It turns out that the “Herc” comes equipped not only with flotation devices, but exposure suits for all passengers, full Arctic survival gear and something called an EPOS. Like its counterpart, the yellow-cup-and-don’t-worry-if-the-bag-doesn’t-inflate, the EPOS is what a passenger would use if cabin pressure were lost. UNLIKE the yellow-cup-etc, there are approximately 13 steps for correct use, and it is basically a plastic bag that one puts over one’s head. This, strangely, was not reassuring.
After a few hours of waiting (we were the second flight to take off that morning. The first flight had technical difficulties and had to turn back. Twice. Once because the number 4 engine wasn’t working), it was finally time to take off. After we were in the air, the loadmaster let us get up and wander around the plane. Approved activities included climbing up on top of the cargo crates and taking a nap. I found a box of my approximate length and width, and promptly fell asleep. That’s first-class flying.
We stopped to refuel in Goose Bay, Canada, at a tiny airport that boasted bathrooms, complimentary ice cream, and little else but tantalizingly close coniferous forest. After half an hour, we were back in the air. Shortly before landing, we flew over Greenland with clear skies and AMAZING views of the mountains and glaciers. There was no feigning blasé professionalism now—everyone on the plane was glued to a porthole ooh-ing and ah-ing.
On arrival and debarkation from the airplane, we were instantly swarmed by mosquitoes—the worst the pilot claims to have seen it in the years he’s been flying to Greenland. We were then bussed to the Kangerlussauq International Science Support (KISS) building, which is a homey mix of ex-military barracks, scientific enthusiasm, and Ikea flair. It is now 12.30 a.m. and the sun is still shining. Although the sun “sets” at midnight and “rises” at two, there is not even appreciable twilight. Tomorrow: ruins?
It’s finally starting to sink in that I am, in fact, leaving for Greenland on Tuesday. TUESDAY. GREENLAND. For the sake of you, the reader, as well as to drill the reality of what we are actually doing into my own head, here’s an introductory post.
We will spend Tuesday evening in Schenectady, New York. On Wednesday morning, and this is where the itinerary becomes surreal, we will be picked up at 5 am and transported to the Stratton Air National Guard Base, where we will meet up with the 109th Airlift Wing of the Air National Guard (unofficial motto: “You call, we haul.”) which works with the National Science Foundation’s Polar Field Services to provide logistical support to polar researchers. This is way “bigger” science than I have ever experienced!
From there, we join other scientists and cargo aboard a C-130 Hercules (for those of you, like myself, relatively unversed on the ins and outs of military aviation, it’s a HUGE 4-propeller airplane capable of transporting tanks) for the flight out to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, which will be our home for the next week. There may be a layover in Canada for refueling, there may not—we won’t know until we’re on board the aircraft.
Kangerlussuaq (“the Gateway to the Greenland Ice Sheet”) was founded during World War II as a U.S. airbase, served during the Cold War as Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line base (images of Dr. Strangelove come to mind), and now functions as a base of operations for NSF research on glaciology, biogeochemistry, and atmospheric science. We will be staying in the Kangerlussuaq International Science Support (KISS) building along with all manner of other polar researchers.
While we are in Greenland, we will be investigating the impacts of climate change in this unique environment—Greenland boasts the second-largest land-based ice sheet after Antarctica, and scientists are beginning to notice accelerations in the flow of glaciers off of this huge interior mound of ice. We will be visiting Russell Glacier, which is within easy driving distance of Kangerlussuaq, and, weather permitting, will spend a night camping within sight of it. There are also plans to visit Norse ruins (such settlers may have fallen victim to climate change during the Little Ice Age, depending on whom you ask), Sondrestrom Upper Atmospheric Research Facility, and the Kangerlussuaq Museum. I’ve also heard Kangerlussuaq boasts a full 18-hole golf course with very modest greens fees and club rentals.
I’m especially interested in, of course, Greenland’s wildlife (although I will not be collecting anything. It’s been almost 11 months, not that I keep track…). Kangerlussuaq is, reportedly, one of the best places in Greenland to see muskox (which you can also try as a pizza topping), caribou, arctic foxes, gyrfalcons, and ptarmigans, among others. On the way to the glacier it looks like we’ll be passing through some beautiful tundra. I’m also curious as to whether there will be any evidence of species turnover in Greenland, from native arctic species to invasive temperate ones. I’ll keep you posted!
Funny, just after I waxed cathartic about figuring out that one species was actually two, today I experienced a kind of reversal. Shrub frogs of the genus Philautus in the Philippines are, in my opinion, nearly impossible to tell apart. In my experience, unless you hear their mating calls, you don't stand much of a chance of being able to identify them‚ because they are so similar in physical appearance. Then, to make matters worse, all their calls sound like "rattles‚" or "crunches." Sometimes one species will go "Crunch!" and another will sound like "Cruuuunch," but they are all variations on just a few themes. It's all very confusing.
For the last several days it has been misty and wet, without steady rain. We have encountered two apparent species of Philautus, one large and another small, with a pointy snout. I was pretty sure: the big "species," consistently has had a greenish color scheme and the little one yellow or brown.
Anyway, today it rained. Hard. Everyone retreated to their tents and hunkered down for the afternoon, it poured and poured, the camp frothed up in chocolate brown mud and, as it got dark, I finally heard a new frog call nearby -- could it be one of the Philautus species? I turned on my headlamp and crawled through the bushes behind my tent and was confronted with a pair of frogs in amplexus (the male grasping the female during mating) on the leaf of a shrub. In just a glance I realized my mistake the big frog‚ was the female and the small frog was the male and the two were actually the same species.
Sexual size dimorphism, or the discrepancy in body size between males and females, is near universal in frogs around the world. In almost all anurans (frogs and toads), females are larger than males, sometimes strikingly so. In a few very special groups, the males are larger than the females. Sometimes the appearance between the sexes is so marked that even the experts get confused and name the male of a species one scientific name and the female another. These shrub frogs fooled me for a week, but at least it finally rained and I didn't make that mistake.
Today was a cathartic day in my own personal journey in studies of Philippine biodiversity. The story starts in 1991 when, as an undergraduate student at Miami University, I joined my first biodiversity inventory expedition to the Philippines. This was a great experience for a 22 year old, and my life took an immediate and irreversible turn (for the better) towards my passion for the study of life in islands archipelagos. But more to the point: in 1991 we surveyed the southern slopes of Mt. Busa in South Cotobato Province (southern Mindanao). The southern Philippines was a bit wild back then and a major commercial logging operation was focused on logging out the remaining huge, closed-canopy, forests along the south coast of Mindanao. Valued at $10,000 per trunk on the Japanese timber market, the hardwood logs that came down the slopes of Mt. Busa made two Kiamba area families extremely wealthy…and changed the landscape and biodiversity of the immediate area forever.
In 1991 I took this image of a WWII MacArthur era weapons carrier truck, converted to a logging skidder, carrying out the massive trunks of the last giant trees from the lowland forests of southern Mindanao. The environmental devastation imparted by this kind of logging is clearly evident; in this picture a logging truck drives through a small stream in a denuded area where a few days before I had collected frog specimens in what had then been pristine forest.
On that trip, justifiably convinced that all local frog populations were going locally extinct, we mounted a salvage operation and collected specimens to the very legal limit allowable by our permits. We anticipated that no animals would survive the holocaust of large-scale commercial logging in that drainage on Mt. Busa and we did the best we could to document every resident species’ presence in the form of preserved specimens, before the record of their existence had been erased forever.
In the middle of a large series of preserved frogs, I unknowingly preserved a single specimen of what I have, over many years, come to believe is new species, still unnamed and unknown to the world. At the time, the slight morphological differences did not impress me and I misidentified the specimen as one of the locally common species. Years later, during my Masters work at Miami University, I showed that this one individual was genetically distinct…but I hesitated to name it because I had only that one specimen…
Now, 21 years later—last night—I finally collected another specimen and knew in an instant what it was…as I flash backed to my memories of Mt. Busa in 1991. How could I have ever doubted myself? This frog obviously is a new species of great conservation significance.
After decades of biodiversity work, so many species discoveries, years of contributions to conservation efforts and student training, I reflect back on so many arguments with my fellow “conversation” biologists on the topic of faunal collecting and the age-old tradition (standardized by Linnaeus) of preserving specimens for describing and documenting biodiversity. Some individuals, understandably abhorring the killing of animals for any reason, frequently speak ill of the practice of collecting and preserving specimens for science. They argue that it is no longer necessary, that it is unethical, or that scientists may actually contribute to extinction of a species by removing a few individuals from the gene pool. Given the unceasing pace of habitat destruction brought about by logging, mining, and gradual conversion of forest to agriculture, there is absolutely no doubt in anyone’s mind that the real threat to biodiversity is habitat loss, not occasional specimen preservation by scientists. We can debate about all the possible causes, but at the end of the day the fact remains: when we cut down the forest, the organisms that depend on it will go extinct. If we cut down all the forest in an area in rapid succession, there is little to no chance for survivors.
For my part, I’m reminded of how important it is to document biodiversity assessments with vouchered specimens. I’m relieved that I unknowingly collected and preserved that large series of frogs in 1991, before their population’s extinction at the hands of the loggers. We now know that there once was a population in the previously forested area, which has now been converted to scorched, arid, grassland. And in the process we discovered a new, unknown species, albeit by mistake. It has taken me 21 years to convince myself of its distinctiveness, but today I am vindicated. And another population (in a protected area) has now been identified, with positive prospects for the continued survival of the species. Finally, the Philippines now has 110 + 1 species of amphibians.
My new hero is our field camp assistant, Pedro, a.k.a “Baba.” Every day or two Baba brings me a couple of animals: a miniature forest rat, a bird, a giant water bug, a sail fin lizard, snake eggs from inside a log; whatever he finds. Invariably he proudly presents the new catch on the end of some plastic string and we communicate in grunts and gestures because he speaks only Bisaya and a local indigenous language and I speak only English and Tagalog. Baba is very adept at setting snares that put our fancy field gear to shame. He has produced more species of mammals than all of the rest of us combined…but the best part is his enthusiasm for each variant he finds. Baba uses his 2-foot, extremely sharp, bolo (macheté) for everything: cutting paths, fixing his sandals, opening cans of food, fixing snares….one popular camp joke goes like this. “Hey do you know what Baba uses to comb his hair? A bolo. Do you know what he uses to scratch his back? A bolo…Do you know what he uses to brush his teeth? A bolo!”
Today Baba brought me a folded leaf with a very strange creature contained within…as I carefully unfolded the leaf and got a glimpse of its contents I thought, “OK Baba, thanks for the worm….wait, is that a centipede? Ah, I know: it’s a blind snake…wait, no way! Is that a Dibamus??!”
Dibamus are some of the most enigmatic and poorly known lizards in the world. They certainly do not look like lizards. They are legless and unless you get a close look at their head (and see eye spots and their mouth), you might mistake them for a worm. Modern herpetologists have debated their evolutionary affinities for decades. They are seldom collected in the Philippines and, according to current taxonomy, Philippine populations are grouped under a species that extends from Asia to New Guinea (an arrangement that I find extremely unlikely, suggesting to me that this specimen is unknown to science). It’s only the second time that I’ve seen Dibamus in the archipelago…what a thrill! Thanks Baba!
Half way through our expeditionary celebration of a century of KU Herpetology in the Philippines, I left the team on the beach near Gingoog City, in Misamis Oriental Province, Northern Mindanao. After Mt. Hilong-hilong, some much needed R&R—plus a chance to clean and dry moldy clothes and tents—was just what the doctor ordered. As I travelled back to the states for a brief hiatus, I again reflected again on how different my experience is compared to that of KU Professor E. H. Taylor, Father of Philippine herpetology. When he first travelled to the archipelago a century ago, he put down roots and stayed in a small village called Bunawan for several years. A hundred years later, I regularly zip back and forth, sometimes for just a few weeks. Reaching these same remote locations that Taylor studied in 1912, in just a matter of days, is still something that still astounds me; I still cannot quite believe how much bigger his planet was than mine.
Of course, today Bunawan is not so remote. As I landed today in Butuan City on my return flight to re-join the team (now in the mountains above Cagayan de Oro City), I was afforded a breathtaking view of the mouth of the Butuan River and the eastern arc mountains of Mindanao in the background.
When Taylor arrived at the same spot a century ago, it was by ship. I can only imagine what the Port of Butuan was like back then, how much slower-paced life was for everyone here. A hundred years ago, Taylor spent several days negotiating passage up river and then travelled by smaller boats inland to Bunawan. He described the trip in exotic, dreamy terms; there was a lot more forest back then and the only means of travel was by riverboat. A hundred years ago there were no roads to Bunawan.
Stationed in the small village where he was tasked with teaching in a small government-run school, Taylor began his herpetological explorations in his free time. His first publications describing new species appeared in the Philippine Journal of Science a few years later. This year’s expedition is, yes, as always, geared towards discovering new species and documenting resident biodiversity. But also we hope to “rediscover” many of the species that Taylor first named 100 years ago. Only a few herpetologists have searched for many of these in the past century, often with limited success. Now that there are paved roads to Bunawan, my excitement necessarily combines with my anxiety about the loss of forest over the past century. With so much of that original habitat now converted to rice fields, palm plantations, and pineapple groves, just how many of Taylor’s species are still around?
Transportation in the rural Philippine countryside can be a challenge. Getting away from the city centers, through the agricultural areas of the lowlands, and up to the foot of a mountain requires multiple stages of transportation from bus, to jeepney, to four-wheel drive truck, and eventually to local village Hubble-hubble motorbikes.
Did you know that the English popular colloquial use of the slang term “Boondocks” (as in the 1965 Billy Joe Royal hit song “Down in the Boondocks”) originated with U.S. service men in the Philippines? During the first part of the last century sailors adopted use of the Tagalog word “Bundok,” (meaning mountain) and applied it to any place far from civilization.
As I said, getting in and out of the village is accomplished via Hubble-hubble, an expertly driven motorcycle with two wooden platforms attached to each side, and a two-foot long stick for a kickstand. The platforms can each support three people, and together with the two or three people who sit on the seat behind the driver, it is not uncommon to see six to ten people riding a single motorbike. Of course with my added weight, five people are the limit—and even then the back tire is nearly flat. Hubble-hubble drivers have superhuman balance and driving skills, and they drive back and forth with a car’s weight on two wheels all day long.
I wonder what folks back in Kansas would think of us hubble-hubbling in the Philippine boondocks? —Rafe