Peru 2010

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Rainforest Observations

Coming from South Korea and this being my first South American trip, I expected to see many scary animals such as alligators and snakes. I did see several snakes and I will never forget the shape of the green viper which surprised and jumped away from me as I jumped the other way. I also to expected to experience the type of “jungle” where we would use machetes to hack our way through, like Kungfu boys. But in a primary rainforest, it is actually quite dark, with very impressive massive trees that form a canopy, where you might expect to see dinosaurs. The jungle I expected was only along the rivers or in disturbed areas where all the plants were racing to the sun. As I expected, Neotropical rainforests present an endless learning opportunity for me.
A brief stop in Lima was necessary to collect the important export permit, which allows us to take specimens out of the country. A Friday night in a big city is like in any other: everyone relaxing, very friendly, smiling, readying for a late night at the start of the weekend. We took the chance to enjoy Peru’s famous cuisine in a nice restaurant in the Kennedy Park area, near the beautiful church, Iglesia de la Virgen Milagrosa, where we recapped the events of our trip.
Then we returned to the airport, with a precious cargo of specimens to remind us of every moment of this brief but productive expedition.
It is unbelievable that our most distinct memory of the Amazon is of the cold, which we will tell others, with minimal exaggeration. After returning home, we learned that Peru’s government declared a State of Emergency because of the extreme cold. \
—Choru Shin
Friday, July 16, 2010

A Cold Journey From the Fieldstation

boat travels

My alarm clock sounded at 5 am. It was still dark, rainy and cold. After two days of extreme cold, we were not looking forward to the day ahead, especially to the 4-hour boat travel back to Laberinto as the start of a two-day journey back home. The station cooks kindly prepared breakfast for us, and then we formed a fire line to load gear onto the boat. Fortunately, we were leaving with less than we brought here as we stored two action-packs of field gear at the station for our next visit.

The boat ride is one we will never forget. It was completely surreal. I was laughing, perhaps hysterically– this was definitely Type II Fun (fun only in hindsight). We were clothed in 3-5 layers, huddling in wool blankets, heading into the wind and rain, and still cold.

Laberinto appeared a miserable town in the rain, mud everywhere. Fortunately our two immaculate white taxis were waiting to take us to lunch in Puerto Maldonado and then to the airport. The food was delicious: fried yucca, fries, steak, and grilled Amazon fishes. But how should I feel about the dosage of mercury that comes in these freshwater fish? 


Thursday, July 15, 2010

Bat Visitors Offer Insect Opportunity

batsWe occasionally noticed a bat flying around our lab space but didn’t pay too much attention to it. On our last night however, when it was unseasonably cold, several bats decided to use our lab as shelter. Often when the door opened one would fly in and around and then perch underneath one of our lab benches; five in fact were roosting together there at one point. I didn’t think too much of it until I recalled that bats have some pretty bizarre fly parasites that wander about through their fur. Suddenly this became an opportunity to make a novel entomological find. So eventually we got one in a butterfly net, and, while Choru held it down, I picked off the small flies with forceps. We let the bat go outside, but I suspect it may have flown right back in again.

—Dan Bennett

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Hymenoptera Impressions, part II

collectingwaspsOther obvious hymenopterans at our field site include the eusocial wasps of the family Vespidae. Sure, in the temperate regions we have our hornet nests and paper-wasp nests, but these types of wasps really become conspicuous in the tropics. There are just so many more elaborate mud and paper domiciles hanging about trees, bushes, and buildings built by a number of interesting genera that are sadly missing from higher latitudes. In fact on one cool day, when few insects were flying about, I took the opportunity to collect these nests and their occupants. The lower activity levels due to the cooler temperature made the whole endeavor a bit less risky. Indeed, 12 nests and about 2500 wasps later I was only attacked once!

—Dan Bennett

Monday, July 12, 2010

Looking for Damage


Since the traps were established on Day 2, we have developed into an efficient 5-person vacuum of arthropods. This morning, we return to the plot to service each trap. We remove the insects and spiders that have been caught, replenish the ethanol, clean out leaves and twigs that have fallen on them, and make sure the traps are not collapsed or overturned. By lunch time, we are having a generous hot meal with our dynamic assortment of field station researchers, swapping stories about wildlife and research. This is such a select crowd: intrepid biologists with a sprinkling of stand-up comics. I am learning as much as I am laughing!

insect damage

The traps are working 24 hours a day but we go out on routine daytime, evening and nighttime walks. As I am seeking plant-feeding insects, I am searching the plants.  It is slow and intense, scrutinizing for feeding damage — scars, mines, holes — and then moving in closer to turn over leaves, pull down branches.  In this part of Peru, I am particularly interested in chrysomelids that have become specialists of bamboos and bambusiform grasses, palms (the ones a 5 ft tall person can reach!), and a particular chrysomelid species that live in unopened or slightly opened leaves of monocot plants in the Marantaceae and Heliconiaceae families.  This latter group is particular abundant here — nearly every rolled leaf has a few individuals of different species living in this tight semi-aquatic space.  Unrolling a leaf is like opening a Christmas present — which specimens, how many individuals, what is their feeding pattern?


Sunday, July 11, 2010

Monkeys vs. Birds



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. 

—Dan Bennett

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Keeping Up With the Traps

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.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Setting Traps on the Forest Floor

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.


Thursday, July 8, 2010

In View of the Madre de Dios River

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.


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Collecting Has A New Urgency

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. 

—Caroline Chaboo