A team of tropical biologists exploring the Amazon rainforest in Suriname have discovered 60 species new to science, and a wonderful gallery of some of them can be found here on the Guardian website. The expedition was part of Conservation International’s Rapid Assessment Program (RAP), which was developed as a means of quickly assessing the biodiversity of little-explored regions in order to catalyse conservation action. Whereas some scientific research and biodiversity surveys can take months or years, rapid assessments are one way of intensively collecting data to get a snapshot of a region in a short amount of time. I think they look like amazing fun, but unfortunately lack the ID skills and expertise to have much hope of being useful on a RAP team. Dr Trond Larson, one of the biologists on this latest expedition, has written a wonderful piece describing the team’s Suriname experience, well worth a read here on Conservation International’s website.
When we could, we would watch twilight rise and fall over the Tiputini river. Getting up in the dark, we would go and sit on the steps rising up from the dock, and then wait as the sky brightened and the forest woke up. In the evenings, tired from the day, we would watch dusk descend. One morning, the hypnotic flow of the river was broken by the quiet breaching and breathing of pink river dolphins. We heard them more than we saw them, and would often turn to see only ripples on the water’s surface, but it was magical to witness their journey past the research station at the start of the day. In the evening, we would watch as woolly monkeys busied themselves in the highest branches of huge trees on the opposite riverbank, finally settling down to sleep, and in the morning we were up before them, and saw them slowly wake up in the morning sun. Macaws would screech as they flew high above the river to their night-time roosts, and bats would emerge when it was almost too dark to distinguish them skittering over the surface of the river.
One night distant thunderclouds and flashes of lightning, and fireflies close by, added to the drama. That night, in our pitch dark cabin, we listened to the sound of one metre of rain falling over the course of just six hours. The complete darkness meant we were unable to see even a hand in front of our faces, or the outline of our cabin window, and the deafening roar of torrential rain was such that even the loudest scream would have gone unheard. It was a strange, claustrophobic night, we felt blind, deaf, and mute, and each time we woke it was the same never-ending darkness and noise. The light of daybreak and the easing of the rain came as a relief, and we finally slept well in the cool rainy morning, before heading out into the wet and froggy forest in the afternoon.
One afternoon Jose took us on a long walk through the forest, sharing his great depth of knowledge with us. We knocked on the trunk of a tree that sounded hollow, and learnt it was the balsa tree, with cotton-like seeds. We found blobs of natural rubber, tested the insect-bite soothing properties of one vine, and kept our distance from another that was used on the tip of poison darts. We learnt that termites are great engineers, modifiying not only their nests but also the trees that they build them on, to funnel water away quickly so they avoid flooding.
We saw a sleepy spider monkey lounging on a branch, and a puffbird with a large spider in its beak. We crept up to a clay lick and watched three red howler monkeys silently climb up and away from the clay. Finally, at the end of the walk, and the end of our time with Jose, he took a palm frond, extracted lengths of fibre from it, spun it into a thread, and then wove an intricate bracelet which he presented as a parting gift, now a most treasured reminder of our time in the jungle.
Our return to Quito came far too soon, and we drank in the jungle on our early morning journey back up the misty Tiputini river. It was now much higher, and flowing much faster, after the rain, and the riverbanks were submerged. A small arboreal anteater called a tamandua was battling to swim across the current, and we celebrated this final rare sighting.
Tiputini Biodiversity Station sits on a bend of the Tiputini river. The forest on one riverbank is indistinguishable from that on the other, except that on the far side the forest lies within Yasuni National Park, a place that has long been on my wishlist of dream destinations. Jose offered to take us there, and we leapt at the chance. We set off downriver by boat, pulled into the riverbank some way downstream, and jumped onto the thick mud, following tapir footprints up the bank. Jose led the way, machete in hand, as we stepped through the riverside scrub and into more open forest beyond.
We were aiming for a clay lick within the forest, a swampy area, rich in minerals. Like the watering hole in the African bush, a clay lick is a magnet for all kinds of species day and night: the minerals in the clay are vital for a healthy diet. Jose led us under palms, across a stream where we exchanged glances with a trio of peccaries, and past a huge freshwater mangrove tree.
Eventually we climbed a bank, and then we were looking down on swampy clay, bright in the sunshine, covered in footprints. A solitary parrot quietly made its way up into the branches of a tree, but we saw no other creatures. Jose revealed he had never been there before, but had led us through the disorientating jungle based on directions given to him by his brother.
Despite not seeing so many species that morning, it was a thrill to be in Yasuni itself, and evidence of the diverse visitors to the clay lick was all around. This video, filmed in the Peruvian Amazon, gives a wonderful idea of who might have been there just before, or just after us. If you watch until the end, you might understand why I sometimes felt a little nervous during my PhD field seasons, on the trail at dawn.
The Yasuni rainforest is a wonderland for a biologist. It jostles for position as the world’s most biodiverse place with other sites in the Peruvian and Bolivian Amazon, and Andean lowlands. It is home to hundreds of amphibian, reptile, bird and mammal species, over 1000 species of tree, and thousands and thousands of insects. Enigmatic large cats, anaconda, pink river dolphins, ten primate species, bird species ranging from the enormous harpy eagle to tiny hummingbirds, and untold undiscovered species are all here. A visit is a chance to maybe catch a glimpse of some of these, but it all depends on luck. Like stepping into a tropical greenhouse at a botanic garden, it envelops you in humidity and the smell of vegetation, but with a glorious cacophony of insect, bird and frog calls. A hundred shades of green hide almost all animal life to the untrained eye, but with time the animals become easier to see. The noise in the canopy that you initially confuse with leaves in the wind alerts you to monkeys, the forest floor becomes alive with camouflaged frogs and insects, and butterflies dance across your path. Birds are easier to hear than to see, but a hummingbird may pause, hovering inches from your face, as it zips along it’s flight path, and the croak of a macaw means you can catch a flash of red as it flies over the canopy far above. Your eyes become trained to notice movement, and with time you see more and more.
We arrived for a week at Tiputini Biodiversity Station – just across the river from Yasuni National Park proper – full of anticipation. We knew all these species were all around us (and with camera trapping projects run by the station, it is sometimes unnerving to realise just how close some of these species regularly are), but it would be mostly down to luck, combined with the infinite skill and knowledge of our guide, Jose, that would determine what we would see.
We started in the canopy, high above the forest floor, at dawn on our first morning. We set off in the gloomy pre-dawn light, straining to see the trail and not trip over any tree roots. Jose immediately spotted a tiny, perfectly camouflaged frog, by the side of the trail, which set the tone for the following days as he repeatedly spotted birds and animals that were invisible to us. The canopy platform was 45 metres off the ground, in the vast branches of an enormous tree, themselves part of a complex ecosystem supporting bromeliads and climbing plants, birds, insects, and amphibians. To reach it, we climbed a metal tower, which became slightly more nerve-wracking with every flight of stairs. It was a cloudy day, so rather than sunrise we watched the light change and the forest wake up.
We soon spotted two gangly spider monkeys making their way between the tree tops, some distance away and beneath us. One, after reaching a new palm, re-caught a frond of the previous one while suspended by its tail, making a bridge for the smaller monkey to climb across. Scarlet macaws circled the tower in a spectacular flypast. A hummingbird visited the epiphyte flowers, colourful paradise and opal-crowned tanagers were busy in the tree canopy above us, and a lizard froze and changed colour under our gaze. We spotted a many banded aracari, a puffbird, a bare throated fruit crow, and vultures hunched among bare branches in the distance.
Back on the ground, we caught sight of our first primate species, the rare and endemic golden-mantled tamarin.
After a huge lunch and a siesta, we were back on the trails, this time on a slow walk to a lagoon. On the way there we crept quietly off the trail – with Jose whispering instructions – and stood beneath a tree, craning our necks. The inhabitants we were looking for were pygmy marmosets, the smallest monkey in the world. After a short while, a tiny, scrabbling gremlin skittered down the trunk.
The pygmy marmosets feed by chewing through the bark of the tree, and lapping up the sap. The tree was covered in pits. (This video is of the same species, but was filmed by a lodge in Peru)
Further along the trail we saw dusky titi monkeys, woolly monkeys, and monk saki monkeys, bringing the first day’s total to six species of primate.
The lagoon itself was ringed by palms, the lower couple of metres of which were muddy from the high water during the rainy season. We paddled quietly across the water in a canoe. Hoatzins, a prehistoric dinosaur of a bird, huffed and crashed about in the branches, and caciques whirred about, noisily building their hanging nests. We also spotted an anaconda, motionless, under some low hanging branches. The most biodiverse place on earth was living up to its reputation.
Whereas the first morning was spent observing the forest wake up from above, the second found us in a boat, travelling downstream on the Tiputini river. We were heading for a parrot clay lick, a part of the river bank where flocks of parrots congregate each day, to get vital minerals from the soil.
As we rounded a bend in the river we came across a submerged tapir, which lumbered up and out of the water, and disappeared up the bank. Kingfishers, disturbed by the boat engine, seemed to lead the way, pausing on a branch ahead of us only to take off again as we got close. Turtles plopped into the water, and night herons stood guard at the water’s edge. Once in position, we watched as parrots gathered in the cecropia trees above the lick, and eventually, after much noisy chatter, they descended and continued to excavate a small cave out of the bank. Once or twice they were spooked by something, a huge flock rising and circling before returning to eat some more.
On our way back, the boat slowed, and Jose gestured that he had seen something in the water. We were then led a merry dance by three pink river dolphins, noses and fins appearing behind us, then in front of us, but never alongside the boat.
Later that evening we were on the river again, scouring the banks with a huge spotlight, looking for reflected eye-shine of caiman. The jungle at night feels like a different world, and it was cool and breezy on the boat, watching nightjars, and alert for animals on the riverbank. Then it was to bed, to be quickly lulled to sleep by the rhythmic chirps, whirrs, pips, buzzes and croaks of insects and frogs in the absolute darkness. This recording gives a taste of the Amazonian night time soundscape.
We flew from Quito to Coca, in the Ecuadorian Amazon, to get to Tiputini Biodiversity Station deep in the rainforest. It was a tough choice, whether to take the bus or plane, and flying felt like the shameful, hypocritical choice given the region’s controversial and damaging oil extraction in recent decades. The alternative for the return trip was 2 days of treacherous mountain roads in the rainy season, and two nights in Coca, a busy, polluted town, home to local communities and oil workers. The flight was half an hour each way. It is this convenience, and our expectation to take the quicker, simpler journey, that has helped us become dependent on oil. We are now so desperate to find new oil fields to exploit, that one of the most biodiverse places on earth, Yasuni National Park in Ecuador, could be irreversibly damaged to meet our fuel demands. If this does happen, then in exchange for the suffering of indigenous peoples and the destruction of biodiversity, we would gain enough oil to keep the world running for about a week. It seems a ludicrous choice to make.
However, just like the many passionate scientists working in the depths of the forest at Tiputini Biodiversity Station, fly we did. Stepping off the plane was like stepping into a sauna, hot and muggy, but instead of the heady smell of tropical rainforest we were greeted by an unpleasant mix of traffic fumes and smoke. Before long we were in a boat on the Napo river, heading downriver, the banks so far apart that the mighty rainforest – where it was still standing and hadn’t been cleared for oil or agriculture – appeared to be no more than a hedge along each side. We passed a gas flare burning on the banks, and were overtaken by speedboat ferries taking their cargo of workers to the oil and gas extraction sites.
After an hour and a half we arrived at a checkpoint owned by Repsol YPF, a Spanish-Argentinian oil and gas company that controls access to a road that would take us to a second boat on the Tiputini river. We filed through, our bags were x-rayed, and we drove for an hour, on a bus with no sides and hard wooden bench seats, along the gravel road.
Repsol YPF are so sensitive to security that photography is forbidden. This region was first and foremost home to the indigenous Huaorani people. The Huaorani remain, some living in wooden homes built for them by Maxus (the Ecuadorian company that originally constructed the road) that bear no resemblance to their traditional houses. We saw these, and paths disappearing into productive crop gardens, drove over rivers with signs giving their indigenous names, and saw dugout canoes in the water beneath us.
We learnt a great deal more about what we had seen later in the week, when a presentation and documentary on the road and Huaorani communities was shown at the research station. The road itself, necessary for the transport of oil, resulted in direct deforestation, but as discussed in a previous blog, roads bring people which lead to further deforestation. To prevent colonisation along the road, the oil company became guardian, hence the checkpoint. It was alleged that at one point, unsure what to do with a particular waste product, and apparently seeking to fulfill an obligation to be of benefit to the local communities, this waste was spread on top of the gravel road to keep dust levels down. Not only was dust not a problem to start with, this toxic waste soon washed off in the rain, and into the surrounding soil and water. It was also alleged that the education that has been provided by the oil companies has been a failure, with the level of education so poor that school graduates are not employable in towns, where many now wish to live and work. We heard anecdotally that it has also deprived them of their chance to develop the knowledge of the forest that is needed to live as previous generations have done. As a result, school graduates now often end up as beggars in town, or reliant on an elderly relative who will support up to twenty people in the forest. From what we heard and saw, it appears that the social fabric of this Huaorani community has been destroyed.
The road remains gravelled and not paved so that one day the forest can grow back… when this was explained to us it was met with a grim, hollow laugh, as if this small token gesture would redeem the companies of the devastation they have caused.
Elsewhere in the Ecuadorian Amazon, the legal battle between indigenous communities and Chevron, responsible for extremely destructive practices over the last 30 years, is ongoing. Support for the local communities is one of several campaigns run by Amazon Watch, and their statement about Chevron’s activities is chilling:
“The company deliberately dumped billions of gallons of toxic wastewater into rivers and streams, spilled millions of gallons of crude oil, and abandoned hazardous waste in hundreds of unlined open-air pits littered throughout the region. The result is widespread devastation of the rainforest ecosystem and local indigenous communities, and one of the worst environmental disasters in history.” Amazon Watch
While extraction practices now need to be seen as far more socially and environmentally responsible, the fact that the gas fields are now harder to reach, and the grade of the oil much lower, means that extraction will be increasingly energy intensive and destructive. One must only look to neighbouring Peru, where the sadly familiar dance between government, oil companies and indigenous people is also taking place, to see oil companies acting in their own interests despite their statements to the contrary. In Peru, the very existence of groups in voluntary isolation is denied by the oil companies who want to work in their territories, despite clear evidence that indigenous people are present.
Seeing the effects of our thirst for oil, as first-hand as we were able, was shattering. An understanding of what is at risk makes it even more difficult to contemplate the effects of further extraction, encroaching more and more on areas like Yasuni National Park. Since we visited, an oil spill caused by a ruptured pipeline (belonging to another oil company) resulted in 11,000 barrels of oil entering the Coca river, which then made its way downstream to the Napo, and onwards into Peru. The Ecuadorian President, Rafael Correa, has offered an innovative solution to the conservation of the region: rather than continue with oil extraction, the oil will remain in the ground if the international community donates half the value of the oil to Ecuador, for use in social and environmental projects. This would amount to $3.6 billion, over 13 years, which in global economic terms is the bargain of the century (this ‘Billion Dollar-o-Gram‘ helps put it in perspective). But even this – a simple lifeline for some of the last pristine rainforest in the world – has been met not only with apathy by governments around the world, but with fierce criticism. Critics argue that Correa is blackmailing the world, and that his assurances cannot be guaranteed. The argument in favour asserts that as Ecuador could very much use the economic benefits of this oil, they should be compensated for foregoing its exploitation. I think it is a small price to pay to at least buy some more time to work out a cleaner way to exploit the oil reserves, or to come up with a sustainable alternative to oil, that we will need sooner or later anyway.
Our bus stopped at the top of a bank above the Tiputini river, and we hobbled off. Huaorani families were washing, playing, and fishing in the river, small children giggling, and a woman cackling with laughter as she shared jokes with our guides and coaxed a fishing line. This was the last leg of the trip, down the much narrower, meandering Tiputini. Trees hung low over the water. We spotted monkeys, herons, kingfishers, and still life arrangements of turtles on half-submerged branches, who would tip sideways into the water as we went past. We were scouring the trees for wildlife, and hoping against hope for a jaguar on the bank, as river travel is often the best way to see a big cat in the rainforest. A boat on a narrow jungle river is one of my favourite places to be, and the hour and a half it took to reach the research station was a joy. As the afternoon sun turned golden we rounded the final bend and saw wooden steps rising out of the water, leading to a roofed platform, beyond which lay the dining room and narrow trails leading to cabins in the forest.
The journey had been long, and had shown us one of the uglier sides of the world, before ending in one of the most beautiful places on earth. Without the sound of the boat engines, the jungle noises could now be heard, and we sat and watched the water flow round the bend beneath the station, as the light faded, macaws flew back to their roosts, and bats emerged to skim the surface of the water.
Quito sits high in the Andes, in the north of Ecuador. We ended up staying there on four separate occasions, in between excursions to cloudforest, volcanoes, and the Amazon rainforest. We became fond of our favoured hostel, Posada del Maple, and the tiny restaurant of just four tables run entirely by a friendly but slightly melancholy man, where we would go for a delicious dinner.
For its relatively small size, by South American standards, Ecuador’s geographical diversity is extreme. If you want to see as many habitat types as possible within as small an area as possible, Ecuador should be your destination. The Andes run north-south down the length of the country in two parallel cordilleras. High peaks (Chimborazo, at 6310m, being the highest), erupting volcanoes, and high altitude plateaus give way to the western and eastern slopes dropping down to sea level (or near enough, in the case of the Amazon basin). The peaks are so high that they have formed an effective barrier between west and east for numerous species. As a result of this isolation, many species have evolved separately on each side: species on one side will often not be found on the other. The forest starts high and stunted, before transforming into lush and permanently shrouded high elevation cloudforest, and then emerges from the clouds as tropical forest. Not only are these forests highly diverse, but their differing species composition mean that overall diversity is higher still. And the habitats do not end there. The Amazon extends eastward, while in the west coastal rainforest gives way to mangroves, the coast, and 1000km away, the Galapagos Islands. Over 15% (1600 species) of the world’s birds can be found in Ecuador, and it this level of diversity that has led to Ecuador being declared one of 17 megadiverse countries in the world.
Our next destination was a couple of hours south of Quito, the small town of Latacunga. Driving along the Pan-American Highway, the route took us through the ‘avenue of the volcanoes’, but sadly they were all invisible in the clouds. We arrived in Latacunga at Sunday lunchtime, to find a hot, sunny and sleepy central square.
The town seemed pleasant, but largely deserted, and we found a friendly little hotel to stay in overlooking the square. Later, as the heat gave way to fat raindrops, we took a taxi to a shopping mall on the outskirts of town to pick up some food supplies. Everywhere in town was shut, so we were surprised to learn that the shopping mall would be open. Its large plate glass windows looked at odds with the low, ramshackle buildings spreading out from the pretty town centre. Inside, the whole town was there. It was buzzing with families. Rain started leaking through the roof. We found a huge supermarket and stocked up, and as we stepped back outside we caught a breathtaking glimpse of Cotopaxi rising above thunderous storm clouds. This was our main reason for visiting, to see Cotopaxi and another volcanic sight, Quilotoa crater lake.
First we headed to Quilotoa. This meant driving up a winding road, higher and higher, leaving Latacunga (at 2670m) far below us. All around was a patchwork of vivid green, with cultivated fields extending up and over every possible hillside. We paused for the requisite souvenir shop stop, unavoidable on any tour, but also highly valuable for local communities to benefit from tourism. Inside were original paintings, Andean scenes, women in traditional dress, an Andean take on Noah’s Ark.
Most striking of all was a huge picture of an Amazonian scene. We weren’t allowed to take a photo of it, but what was so arresting, other than seeing the depths of the jungle portrayed here high up in the Andes, was that it was not a celebratory image. Oil leaked from a pipe, flames glowed in the distance, an oil drum floated on its side. Texaco was named and shamed. Ecuador’s relationship with oil extraction from the Amazon is something for a later post, but it was interesting to see that even here it was a highly emotive subject.
Quilotoa itself is a stunning lake, surrounded by the jagged rim of the caldera. We were now at 3800m, the highest of the trip so far, and we coated ourselves in sunscreen and set off for the descent to the lake and back. Our tour guide was hopeless, so it was only later that we learnt that it is still active, and that if you look closely you can see bubbles rising from the depths.
The next day we set off for Cotopaxi. Low clouds had meant that other than our glimpse from the shopping mall, we hadn’t seen Cotopaxi at all, so we were excited to wake to a bright and clear day.
Cotopaxi is 5897m high, and is still active. Treks to the summit, with a midnight start from the refuge at 4800m, are popular, but we weren’t quite ready for that. Instead, we were heading to the glacier line at 5000m. Even getting this far was a breathtaking challenge, from the low oxygen levels alone, and the views were stunning. The altitude was deceptive, as the valley floor was about 4000m high. From the slopes of Cotopaxi we could see numerous other volcanoes, and it felt like we were on top of the world.
The ground turned from ash to an iron-rich red before disappearing under the ice. We toasted our success with a shared cup of aguardiente on ice from the glacier, and watched a fox walk along a ridge above us. Clouds began to blow in as we started our descent.
Then it was a return to Quito once again, before an adventure into the jungle…
Last week I was able to attend a number of sessions of an exciting symposium organised by the Biodiversity Institute at the University of Oxford. I was earning my ticket by pouring teas and coffees during the breaks, and setting up and clearing away lunch, so didn’t quite make it to all the talks, but it was a fascinating couple of days. All the details of speakers and talk titles can be found here, if you’re interested to check out all the topics that were covered. Sessions ranged from citizen science and bioacoustic technologies to genetic and genomic tools and novel technologies for data collection.
Some technologies have become well known for their use in fieldwork, such as radio telemetry, satellite tagging, and the use of GPS, and improvements in these tools continue to be made, but the main insight for me was how online resources can radically alter how data are collected, collated and accessed.
I’ll discuss a few of those in a minute, but first want to highlight a super cool innovation that will have a big impact in the field: Conservation Drones. These have had a lot of media interest already, and I wasn’t the only one eagerly waiting to hear the talk by Lian Pin Koh, one of the inventors. The Conservation Drones are “inexpensive, autonomous and operator-friendly unmanned aerial vehicles for surveying and mapping forests and biodiversity. Non-technical operators can program each mission by defining waypoints along a flight path…” according to their website, and their potential is huge. Not only are they relatively affordable (~ $3000), and easy to transport, they make it possible to survey otherwise inaccessible areas, and to cover a greater area far more rapidly than can be done on foot.
They could be particularly useful for monitoring land use changes within remote protected areas, as well as being an invaluable addition to survey techniques for rarely encountered animals (they have successfully photographed orangutan nests, rhino, and elephant). As you can program their exact route, you could monitor the same transect at regular intervals, take video or photographic images (designed to suit your needs), stitch together photos, and now also make 3D models of the forest based on your images…
When working on biodiversity research, two major issues frequently present themselves: firstly, taxonomy is in a constant state of flux, with species names changing to reflect the latest knowledge of the relationships between different branches of the evolutionary tree. Secondly, personal data collections can be huge, but it is often some time before your data is ready for publication, and some data may never make it into a paper anyway. This means that a great deal of valuable data is effectively hidden from the scientific community, sometimes indefinitely. Making data collation and access more rapid and wide-ranging is the aim of a number of online initiatives such as Scratchpads, which make it easy to develop a website for your research group or collaboration, bringing together all info on your area of study, and making sharing and publishing your data simple; and the Global Biodiversity Information Facility which is a hub of open access biodiversity data.
Feeling very ignorant about plant identification, I was really interested to learn about the eMonocot project, currently in development. This aims to be a global resource for all those working on monocot plants (a quarter of flowering plants), to provide an up-to-date taxonomy, and to make it possible for anyone to identify monocots from anywhere in the world using their online interactive identification tools via the eMonocot portal – useful for scientists and non-scientists alike.
And for anyone interested in knowing more about the wildlife they see when out and about, iSpot is the place to upload your photos. Not only can you get other people to help identify what you have seen, you can also help others with their identification, and all the data regarding what has been seen where feeds directly into an ever-growing dataset of distributional information. Citizen science at its best.
Finally, ‘traditional’ technologies can still offer amazing insights when used in new ways. The Penguin Lifelines project – a collaboration between the Zoological Society of London and Oxford University led by Tom Hart – is examining threats to Antarctic penguins, and using a network of time-lapse cameras to monitor colonies that it wouldn’t otherwise be possible to study. It also makes it possible to record exactly when nest building, egg laying, moulting etc occur. Here’s a year in the life of two penguin colonies: