Inside a Scientific SWAT Team: On the Front Lines of Biodiversity Discovery & Conservation
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.