The most logistically challenging day of the trip arrived: moving camp to the summit of Tafelberg. The weather cooperated beautifully and we were greeted with a clear, calm morning. Rain or even heavy clouds would have meant the helicopter would have been grounded. The day before, we had flown in a small bush plane to a deserted airstrip near about 20 kilometers from the base of Tafelberg, and we used this as our staging area.
First, we had to weigh all our food and gear and separate it into piles of roughly 400 pounds. Each pile is assembled into a “package” to be slung to the summit by a net hanging from below the helicopter.
Next, we had to locate a suitable landing site on the mountain. Two other members of the team and I got in the helicopter and set out to take a look. There had been an area cleared many years ago by previous expeditions, but it has not been used in quite a while. As we assumed, it had become overgrown. We located a small pocket of open savannah nearby where we could be dropped off safely, then hiked back to the original landing site and cleared it with machetes.
Over the next two hours, the rest of our team and gear were ferried up, and we established our basecamp at a nearby creek.
First landing on the summit of Tafelberg in a small natural savannah, before clearing a slightly larger helipad for the remainder of the team and gear. Photo by Andrew Short.
Assembling our gear into slings for the helicopter to lift to the summit of Tafelberg. Photo by Andrew Short.
Tafelberg Tepui as seem from the savanna near Kappel Airstrip in central Suriname. Photo by Julian Aguirre.
Devin Bloom prepares and tissues a freshly caught fish specimen from the central market in Paramaribo. Photo by Andrew Short.
The first scientific expedition to Tafelberg took place exactly 69 years ago this month. Led by legendary botanist Bassett Maguire, the 1944 expedition took more than four months. Needless to say, the logistics of his expedition were a bit different than ours.
Using a small group of canoes powered only by paddles and long poles, he traveled upriver through numerous rapids and overland detours from Paramaribo up the Coppename River and its tributaries. With the help and permission of the local villages he encountered, he set out overland when the rivers became impassable.
List of supplies taken on the first expedition to Tafelberg in 1944. From the Journal of the New York Botanical Garden, volume 46, p. 287.
After 23 days of cutting trails with nothing but a compass for navigation, they reached the foot of Tafelberg. Did I mention they had more than 3 tons of gear that had to be hauled every step of the way? And that does not include additional food and supplies that were parachuted to them in the jungle from military planes both along the way and while on the summit.
Fast forward to 2013, and the travel that took his party weeks will take us less than an hour by helicopter. Correspondingly, we are working hard to ensure that our gear (and ourselves…) will “make weight”, as how much we can transport per helicopter run is extremely limited.
If you are curious about just exactly what such an ambitious 1944 expedition took to the field, here is list from a report on the expedition published by Maguire in 1945:
On a completely separate note, we collected our first specimens today. Taking a break from gearing up here in Paramaribo, Devin browsed the central market here for interesting fish, and picked up some freshly caught individuals to prepare as museum specimens.
A tepui rises from the Gran Sabana region of Venezuela. Photo by Andrew Short.
And we’re off! My postdoc Devin Bloom and I just landed in Paramaribo, the capital city of Suriname. From here, we’ll make final preparations for our ultimate destination, Tafelberg (“table mountain” in Dutch). Although not the tallest peak in Suriname (that honor goes to the nearby Juliana Top), it is special because it is the only tepui in the country and the eastern most on the continent.
Tepuis are fortress-like sandstone mesas that are found in this region of South America. Formed largely by erosion of the surrounding sediments rather than uplift or volcanism, these ancient sentries tower over the surrounding jungles, with some reaching 3000 meters in elevation. Roraima, perhaps the most famous tepui, inspired the “The Lost World” by Arthur Conan Doyle and the landscapes in the movie “Up”. The world’s tallest waterfall, Angel Falls, plunges off Ayuan tepui in Venezeula. Although dinosaurs have yet to be found on their summits, tepuis are host to a spectacular array of endemic plants and animals. Many of these may be ancient relicts, representing real examples of Doyle’s undiscovered world.
Compared to more notable tepuis, Tafelberg is small and lonely. It rises to a relatively modest 1000 meters, and is set hundreds of kilometers east of its nearest geological kin. This has led to questions about whether Tafelberg’s flora and fauna share any link with other tepuis, and if so, to what extent?
Soon, the final members of our group from the New York Botanical Garden will arrive, and on August 12, our team will be dropped off at a remote grassy airstrip near the mountain’s base. From there, we will be lifted to the summit of Tafelberg by helicopter to conduct our survey. Until then, we will be finalizing the logistical and supplying details, as well as attending an international congress on the biodiversity of the Guiana Shield.
The sun rises over the Central Suriname Nature Reserve, as seen from the summit of Voltzberg. Photo by Andrew Short.
Andrew Short is a National Geographic Grantee and assistant professor of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the University of Kansas. An entomologist by training and at heart, Short is currently in Suriname, South America searching for aquatic insects to study patterns of freshwater biodiversity that will inform both science and conservation.
Having climbed up through a layer of misting clouds, we reached the summit of Voltzberg just in time to see the day break over the surrounding rainforest. Sitting at the northern edge of the Central Suriname Nature Reserve (CSNR), Voltzberg is one of many imposing granite domes that pepper this ancient South American landscape. A massive swath of tropical wilderness twice the size of my home state of Delaware, the CSNR is almost entirely unpopulated and only accessible by canoe and bushplane.
While taking in the vastness of the landscape was a welcome break from our fieldwork routine that morning last July, my students and I had work to do: documenting the aquatic insects that live in the streams, waterfalls, and forest pools that surrounded us. Our research here, done in collaboration with the National Zoological Collection of Suriname, has uncovered dozens of new species and we’re only just gotten started. These inventories help us approach a number of bigger questions: How similar is this patch of forest to one 50 miles away? What are the ecological limits of these species, and what would happen if the environment changed? Can these insects help us monitor water quality?
We’re making final preparations for our return to Suriname (and CSNR) next week. This time, our target is more ambitious: Tafelberg — an isolated table mountain in the center of the reserve. Stay tuned for updates as our expedition gets underway!
From small towns in Kansas to Chicago to New York, Lewis Lindsay Dyche thrilled audiences with his skill in natural history displays and later with lectures about his adventures. Many of the glass slides that he displayed in these "magic lantern" talks have not been seen by the public in more than 100 years and will be featured in an exhibition opening and major public event on Nov. 4 at the University of Kansas. For more information about these and other events, visit http://naturalhistory.ku.edu/events
In the five years since the fungal disease white-nose syndrome was discovered in New York, the disease has spread to more than 190 sites in 16 eastern states and two four Canadian provinces. At one Canadian site alone, 5,000 bats died.
In this week's ScienceNews, the bats -- and the scientists working to study the disease -- are the subject of the cover article.
Named for its devastating impact, the fungus, Geomyces destructans latches onto living bats in the dead of winter. The fungus takes root during the winter hibernation period for bats such as the little brown bat, which suffers a 90 percent mortality rate from the fungus. At one New York location, the number of bats hibernating there went from 200,000 to only 2,000 in just three years.
Scientists aren't just documenting the disease's spread and its potential devastation to ecosystems. They are also looking for antifungal solutions to halt the spread of the disease or help the bats resist it.
You can read more this research in the latest issue of ScienceNews (https://www.sciencenews.org/article/helping-bats-hold)
Jonathan Coddington is the head of research and collections at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History. He recently told (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129212121) National Public Radio's Guy Raz that the thousands of jars of specimens held by the museum — including marine specimens from the Gulf — are an invaluable resource for scientists. In the case of the Gulf oil spill disaster, they provide a comparison point: if a scientist needs to know how oil have affected crab larve after the spill, it helps to know the characteristics of crab larve before the spill, for example. Each specimen is a recording of the animal, its characteristics, its environment and other details at a particular moment in time. At the KU Biodiversity Institute, we have more than 8 million such research specimens and tissue samples preserved in jars, freezers and cabinets.
Some mysteries can be solved if you just know what you're looking for — and where to find it.
The July 2 edition of the journal Science features a profile on reseacher Dolores Piperno, who perfected microscopic methods to trace the earliest evidence of corn among early peoples of in southern Mexico. Rather than focusing on the plant evidence of corn cobs, which put the date of the earliest domestication of corn at about 6,200 years ago, Piperno and her team looked for tiny bits of evidence among tools that might have used with corn.
Piperno, a scientist with the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History and its Tropical Research Institute, and her team found grinding stones with traces of corn that dated to 8,700 years ago in the Balsas River Valley. This helped end a long debate about whether maize had been domesticated in the highlands or the lowlands, Science reported. Her techniques, while greeted with skepticism at first, were accepted by others in the field of archaeobiology.
Quoted the publication:
"That's exactly how you're supposed to do science," says archaeobotanist Deborah Pearsall of the University of Missouri, Columbia. "If you look at the corpus of Dolores's work, you see the power of a scientist who chooses her research topics on the basis of hypotheses she wants to test."
Read more about Piperno's work at Science (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/329/5987/28.full)
Summertime means summer fieldwork for many academic scientists, but some researchers skip the far-flung places in favor of urban habitats close to home.
There are plenty of places to look at adaptation and evolution in cities, notes a recent article in the New York Times. Reporter Carl Zimmer talked with biologists who study urban populations such as mice, ants and fish inside the city's borders. The scientists included Dr. Jason Munshi-South, who is tracking changes in urban populations of animals. Munshi-South is studying white-footed mice, which inhabited the forests that became New York City, and over generations have adapted to city life.
Munshi-South studies mice he finds by visiting parks around New York such as the 130-acre Highbridge Park. Using DNA analysis, he and his colleagues have found that the populations of mice in each park are genetically distinct from the mice found in other parks.
There are many examples of urban adaptation, the article notes: "White-footed mice, stranded on isolated urban islands, are evolving to adapt to urban stress. Fish in the Hudson have evolved to cope with poisons in the water. Native ants find refuge in the median strips on Broadway. And more familiar urban organisms, like rats, bedbugs and bacteria, also mutate and change in response to the pressures of the metropolis. In short, the process of evolution is responding to New York and other cities the way it has responded to countless environmental changes over the past few billion years."
Other scientists interviewed study populations of ants within the medians of New York City street, and the affect of PCBs on Hudson River fish.
Closer to home, Biodiversity Institute scientists have looked at populations at parks and wildlife areas surrounding Lawrence, and once even documented a giant resin bee in a Lawrence backyard. The bee turned out to be the first one (http://www2.ljworld.com/news/2009/jan/12/beekeeper-elective-course-piques-interest-insect/) authoritatively identified west of the Mississippi River.
Check out the full article about New York biologists and their urban research here (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/26/science/26evolve.html?_r=2&hp&)
What a joy it was last fall when NOAA Ocean Explorer announced that researchers had discovered new coral reefs (http://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/explorations/09lophelia/logs/summary/summary.html) in the Gulf. These are not tropical reefs; they are in the cold, dark depths of the sea. They are comprised of Lophelia pertusa, a stony coral found in deep, dark near-freezing waters.
Sadly, as the New York Times reported today (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/02/us/02coral.html?ref=science), the reefs are a mere 20 miles northeast of the failed oil well that is spewing oil into the gulf. It's one of three deepwater reefs under the oil slick.
The oil is not so much the issue. It's the plumes of partly dissolved oil spreading through the water. A mixture of oil, dispersants and natural gas, it could prove toxic to these slow-growing reefs. "Both oil and dispersants, which chemically resemble dishwashing detergent, hamper the ability of corals to colonize and reproduce. And these effects are amplified when the two are mixed," the newspaper noted.
More research will be needed to determine how the spill will affect the reefs and other ocean organisms over the years to come.