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!
Over the last few days, we finished our work in Amazonas and cross the Orinoco back to the Llanos region, staying in San Fernando de Apure. Kelly and Luis split from our group yesterday and headed back to Maracay; Luis has to fly back to New Mexico today, so he can teach tomorrow. The rest of us drove straight west and today we started our winding accent into the main Venezuelan Andes. Tonight we stopped for the day in Biscucuy, which is at about (a relatively low) 500 meters elevation. Over the next couple of days, we will cover some of the higher elevations, up to 3000 meters. The highest peaks near the town of Merida reach just over 5000 meters.
A few days ago, I arrived in Suriname for my second expedition of the year. I am working with some of the good folks at the National Zoological Collection of Suriname, including mentoring a student who is finishing her degree on aquatic beetles and water quality. The last few days we have been doing some local collecting via day-trips and I have been prepping for a more intensive expedition to the interior which starts on Thursday and will last for three weeks. We'll be lifting into a mountain range that forms the boarder with Brazil for a RAP survey, led by Conservation International. Should be some great beetles!
Costa Rica has been a blast! From collecting beetles in pristine rainforest to relaxing outside Kiri Lodge on a warm tropical night, Costa Rica has exceeded my expectations for an international expedition. Firstly, all the people we came into contact with were pleasant, generous people who were always eager to help regardless of our lack language skills. I am very impressed by the Costa Rican people (especially Laura our hostess from Kiri Lodge) and their geniality has added immensely to our overall experience
Secondly, the country itself is beautiful with its misty mountains and luscious rainforests. Our week in Tapanti National Park gave us a glimpse of the diverse fauna and flora that makes this country so ideal for research. Lastly, our collaborators from the Universities of Delaware and Costa Rica were all excellent, amiable researchers. The graduate students from Delaware were always ready to help me with identifications and their jovial dispositions made the trip very entertaining. Despite our lack of communication, the students from Costa Rica helped us set-up traps and collect while their advisor, Monika, was perhaps the most helpful and likable person we encountered during our trip. My time in Costa Rica has been the most memorable trip I’ve experienced and I can say with certainty that I will return to this halcyon country.
I know it sounds cliché, but it’s hard to believe how fast the last two weeks have gone by. I have made plenty of memories: from wading across the Rio Orosi, to scrambling around rock seeps in search of Oocylcus, to humming the Jurassic Park theme with Frazier as we bounced along in the back of a pickup as it hurtled through the rainforest. I know I will never forget my time here in Costa Rica. I left the United States, a young, naïve gringo, and soon I will return a slightly older, ruggedly unshaven, moderately less naïve gringo who has had some of the coolest experiences of his life.
Eve of departure
End of an experience
Soon I will return
Our driver, Leroy, slammed on the brakes. The large Bedford truck behind us carrying our gear and most of our crew ran into a patch of think mud and was now sunk up to its axels and listing to one side. Up to now, our three-truck caravan had snaked its way towards to our first base camp without any problems.
We are here in southern Guyana to conduct a rapid biological inventory of the Southern Rupununi Savannah (Read more). Luckily, after some digging, wedging, jacking, pushing, and winching, we were able to get it unstuck and get to the Kusad Mountains by mid-afternoon. An advance team with WWF (World Wildlife Fund) had arrived several days before to clear a spot for our base camp, which was mostly set up when we arrived.
Not wasting any time, the aquatics team headed out to do our first sampling at 6am just as the sun crested over the Kusad Mountains the next morning. The 10 of us were piled into a 4×4 pickup and headed to take water quality and fish and aquatic insect samples from the Takatu River, which forms the border between southern Guyana and Brazil. Fortunately this 2-hour drive was much less eventful than our arrival from Lethem.
As leader of the aquatic insects team, I oversee the sampling protocols and collection of several groups on which we are focusing: beetles, true bugs, dragonflies, and caddisflies. Over the next two weeks, we’ll sample rivers, streams, and lakes across the southern Rupununi. Combined with the data gathered by the water quality and fish teams, we can generate a holistic picture of the health of the region’s watershed.
Getting our Bedford truck unstuck. Photo by Andrew Short.
The “road” to the Takatu River. Photo by Andrew Short
The sun rises over the Kusad Mountains as the aquatics team leaves to sampling the Takatu River. Photo by Andrew Short.The “road” to the Takatu River. Photo by Andrew Short
Arriving at the foot of the Kusad Mountains. Photo by Andrew Short.
The fish team working in the Takatu River. The banks on which we are standing are in Guyana. The opposite bank belongs to Brazil. Photo by Andrew Short.
Today, an international team arrived in southern Guyana, near the boarder with Brazil, to conduct a rapid biological assessment of the Rupununi Savannah, a sprawling tropical grassland peppered with rock outcroppings and forested mountains. Sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) with assistance from Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC), our expedition will spend the next couple weeks capturing a snapshot of the immense biodiversity that occurs in this poorly known region
Our group has about 35 people, including scientists, students from the University of Guyana, and support staff (a cook, drivers, representatives from local indigenous peoples). We have 10 scientific teams covering a broad array of biodiversity: large mammals, small mammals, fishes, amphibians and reptiles, birds, plants, aquatic insects, ants, water quality, and indigenous resource use (I’m in charge of the aquatic insects).
After assembling in Georgetown, we flew down to Lethem this morning, Tomorrow, we’ll load up into large Bedford trucks (so we can ford the rivers) and head out into the savannah to our first site at the foot of the Kusad Mountains.
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.