Venezuela 2009

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Endgame: Caracas for a course on biodiversity

The last week has been a bit hairier than normal. Joined by another Colombian water beetle student, we flew down to Puerto Ayacucho in southern Venezuela to scope out some new sites. No need for details at this point but things did not go quite as planned. The fact that an American and a Colombian were traveling together along the boarder with Colombia the day after Venezuela shut down all relations with Colombia because of perceived US military aggression (likely) played a role, if you are curious. But, enjoy the two landscape photos of this area below that make it one of my favorite places in the world. After a very (very) long, 13 hour bus ride, I'm now in Caracas to participate in a Neotropical Biodiversity course put on by IVIC (the national Venezuelan Institute of Scientific Investigation). My 30 minute talk tomorrow will be the first full-length presentation I attempt to give entirely in Spanish...we shall see how that goes. This marks the final phase of the trip...I return to Kansas on 6 August.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Dunes and Lagoons

From San Cristobal: The last week has been a whirlwind of different habitat types (as normal). We zipped across from Maracaibo to Coro in Falcon state where we stayed for a few days to work the region. This part of Venezuela is mostly dry semi-desert. Lots of cactus. Among the more striking feature is a dune region which is large enough to make you think you were in lost somewhere in the Sahara. Of course, there are oases of sorts that were full of beetles. We crossed the Sierra San Luis and headed south to Barquisimeto and made our first foray into the Andes nearby, climbing up to just over 6000 feet. Heading down the Andes a bit to Biscucuy and Bocono we stopped at a number of rivers and lagoons with mixed success. We dropped out of the Andes yesterday near Guanare, went south to hit the exiting streams, and today eventually climbed back up into them in the state of Tachira. We will collect here tomorrow before heading up the main Andean chain to Merida and Trujillo later in the week. There has been regular rain but usually only part of a day or at night, and it has had minimal impact on our actual collecting...although it has made some rivers either a bit too swift for our taste or pretty gauged out and not much to collect.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Species of the Month: July

beetleThe Gyrinidae are a family of charismatic aquatic Coleoptera commonly known as whirligig beetles, for their gyrating swimming style. Gyrinids are peculiar for having completely divided eyes giving them the appearance of having four eyes: two that peer above the water and two that peer below the water. They swim about on the surface tension of the water kicking with two pairs of paddle-like legs. The species selected for this month is a whirligig beetle in the genus Gyretes. Gyretes can be characterized by a furry pubescence that usually outlines most of the beetle´s body. However, the Gyretes selected here is nearly completely covered in this hairy pubescence. It also happens to be one of the largest known Gyretes. It is found here in Venezuela and I (Grey) am hoping that I will have the opportunity to collect this charismatic gyrinid on this trip.

Monday, July 6, 2009

The Perija

We  left for a quick 2-day trip to the small village of Tukuko, an outpost at the foot of the Serrania de Perija (see photo at left)--the mountain range that forms the northwestern boarder with Colombia. It has become almost a tradition to visit this area on the first few days of each fact, all five trips have now started with a visit to this area. It takes about 4 hours to make the trip from Maracaibo...two hours to Machiques by car or bus (or a carrito in our case...), and then another 1.5 hours in the back of a pickup truck or similar transport over dusty dirt roads. It rained during the second half, and that made things a bit muddy. Upon arrival we spent a few hours searching out various Zingiberales that might have some interesting beetles living in the micropools. I had collected them here last July, and was eager to get more....and we did. The second day also brought rain in the morning and we scratched it for collecting, but the afternoon was great and we were able to get into one of the local rivers to do some work. Got some space in an outgoing pickup truck around 3:30 and headed back to Maracaibo.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Post-Expedition Chills


Places we sampled on the expedition

The return trip last Friday went smooth and the first 2009 expedition has come to a close. I was not eager to rejoin the cold, but was very much looking forward to hot showers again. In addition to the factoids in my 27 January post, here is another one: nearly 2500 miles driven over the course of 33 days. Now that we’re back in the lab, the real work begins: sorting and preparing the specimens for study, which will take my several months. We expect to prepare about 20,000 specimens from this trip. In this case, “prepare” means to mount, label, and database each one. When done efficiently, that can be one at an overall rate of 25 per hour. Fortunately, I have some great student help to move the process forward, and we should just be wrapping up this material in time for our next expedition in July. Until then.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The wrap-up begins


The coffee is good here in the museum, but I think it would take about 8 of these to fill my normal office mug.

Back in Maracaibo, we’ve been resting and wrapping up loose ends now that the main expedition of the trip is over. I’ve spent the last two days cleaning and preparing our samples for transit. In total, we have collected at 50 different localities, making more than 150 separate ecological collections. It’s hard to even estimate how many specimens we have, but it probably ranges well over 100,000. Considering that is entirely from hand-collecting (e.g. not bulk trapping, etc.), that is quite a bolus indeed, and I think we are all excited about the overall success of the collecting. A Colombian graduate student from the Universidad de los Andes in Bogota arrived for the week to get some hands-on training in identifying water beetles and will participate in a last 2-day foray of collecting. We’ll all leave tomorrow morning around 6am to do some more work in the Serrania de Perija, the mountains we collected in the very first day I was here.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A rainy inauguration

LagoonWe awoke this morning to heavy rain. Not a passing shower, but a uniform grey sky with flooded streets. Aside from a 20-minute squall while we were in the llanos, this is the first time it has rained on our expedition. By 11 am with no end of the rain it sight, we decided to write the day off and relax. I’m not opposed to working in the rain, but the bigger problem is that all of the streams and rivers have been converted into a slurry of mud, water, and debris. While having my coffee at the local corner store, I sat and watched the ongoing coverage of the inauguration. In fact, at least three of the places we stopped by today (the internet café, the hotel, etc.) all were tuned to inauguration coverage. To be honest, I don’t know if that was because all the channels were carrying it, or they chose to watch it. But in any event, when was the last time you tuned in to the live swearing in of Mexico’s president? So, we watched the whole thing live, dubbed over by a Spanish translator. Watching it also reminded me that it will be cold cold cold when I get back.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

New Animals and Ant Heads

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.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Crossing the Orinoco

Orinoco crossingWe 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.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Los Llanos

Los LlanosThe 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.