Field Expeditions, Panama, Ferns

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Student members of the Mamoní Valley Preserve Natural History Project, Jacob Suissa (left), Sylvia Kinosian, Brian Vergara, Jose Palacios, and Christian López examine the rhizome vasculature of a fern species during their first collection trip in the rainforest.

While most of our work between 1999 and 2019 was field work, once this platform started we distinguished field expeditions from our “regular work,” and Seth’s posts have dominated the expedition realm here. Today, with Seth in wintry New Haven in desk mode, my expeditionary imagination is instead fueled by the field expedition described below, on a topic not featured in these pages for seven years, so I am correcting the neglect:

Going where the diversity is

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Student researchers Ben Goulet-Scott (left), Sylvia Kinosian, and Jacob Suissa, reach the crest of a hill overlooking the Mamoní Valley Preserve while carrying 90 species of ferns on their backs.
Photos by Ben Goulet-Scott/Harvard University Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology

Last month, two graduate students from the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University traveled to one of the most species-rich landscapes in the world: a remote strip of tropical rainforest at the narrowest point in the Central American country of Panama.

Ben Goulet-Scott, a Ph.D. candidate in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology (OEB) and a fellow in the Arboretum’s Hopkins Lab, and Jacob Suissa, OEB Ph.D. candidate in the Friedman Lab at the Arboretum, hope their research in the Mamoní Valley Preserve in Panama will increase our understanding of how biodiversity can persevere in the face of climate change, deforestation, and human disturbance.

200126PanamaExp26The 20-square-mile land conservancy on the isthmus separating Central and South America teems with life, making the condensed rainforest habitat a perfect location for their research project because of the vast number of known and potentially undiscovered species living there, Goulet-Scott said. Continue reading

Our Favorite Form Of Prospecting

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Expedition members sprint to flush Slender-billed Flufftails, among the world’s most elusive birds, in a marsh in Bemanevika reserve. Photo: Tristan Spinski

Bioprospecting, a topic we have not posted enough about, came to our attention in the mid-1990s through Costa Rica’s National Institute of Biodiversity. Kimon de Greef, writing for Audubon Magazine, offers an inside view of a prospecting expedition in one of the most wondrous, and at-risk natural habitats on the planet:

Scientists Race to Uncover the Secrets of Madagascar’s Treasure-Filled Forests

The rediscovery of a long-lost duck spurred the creation of two protected areas in the country. Now researchers are scouring these spots for other endemic species before it’s too late.

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With only a few kilometers to go during day-long to Bemanevika, challenging road conditions forced the group to disembark from the two Toyota Land Cruisers and push them through the deep mud. Much of the terrain required the forest technicians to utilize the wench, which they fastened to tree stumps to wind the vehicles up the muddy mountain roads. Photo: Tristan Spinski

We had come this far and now we were stuck, dug in on a dirt track high above the plains. It was monsoon season in Madagascar, and thunderstorms had laid waste to the deeply rutted road. Already we had traversed seemingly unnavigable passes on our way to the remote northern mountains, mud churned to slurry by each passing set of wheels. Almost 24 hours later, this slope flanked by agave plants had defeated us. Our drivers took up shovels: There were ruts to flatten, boulders to excavate and heave into the bushes. As the workers toiled, cicadas hissed from the treetops.

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Map: Mike Reagan

For the field biologists I was accompanying, this breakdown of rural infrastructure held great promise. They were on their way to survey some of the island’s last remaining virgin rainforests—shrinking havens of exceptional biodiversity, including some of Earth’s rarest birdlife. “There’s definitely a correlation with how hard it is to get in,” said John Mittermeier, an expedition leader, ornithologist, and geography Ph.D. student at Oxford University, “and how likely you are to find new stuff.”

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Clockwise from top left: Spearpoint leaf-tail gecko; Andreone’s tree frog; Compsophis fatsibe snake; Boophis goudot frog; Calumma nasutum chameleon; Spinomantis nussbaumi frog. Photos: Tristan Spinski

Now a cry went up among the team. A snake was moving its way through the undergrowth, and with abandon they leapt after it. Luke Kemp, the herpetologist on the expedition, crouched beside the bushes, poking around but coming up empty. “It’s like an addiction,” he told me. “I can’t stop.”

The biologists had congregated from four countries, united by a relentless, even maniacal fascination with wildlife. They wore faded shirts from scientific conferences and were never without their binoculars. Instead of making small talk, they discussed bird calls and sampling methods, animated by purpose and shared expertise. In unison, like meerkats, Mittermeier and the other two birders swung their binoculars from side to side, trying to glimpse what sounded to them like an endemic robin. The two entomologists swept the air with butterfly nets; they would not hesitate, when their hands were full, to pop wriggling insect specimens between their lips. Continue reading

My Summer Research Project: Bird Diversity in Gishwati Forest, Rwanda

Gishwati Forest of Gishwati-Mukura National Park

Two weeks ago I promised an update from the field, and after completing the necessary government permits and preparing for work in the forest, I’m finally ready to write about the summer project that the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies requires of its Master of Environmental Management candidates. We can choose between completing an internship or independent research, and I opted for the latter, since I wanted the experience of designing my own field season and collecting data for scientific analysis for peer-reviewed publication, pursuing a subject that I’m both personally and academically interested in: tropical bird conservation. Now, with the generous support I’m grateful to receive as a fellow of the Yale Institute for Biospheric Studies (YIBS), Yale’s Tropical Resources Institute (TRI), and the University of Rwanda’s Center for Excellence in Biodiversity and Natural Resource Management (CoEB), I’ve started my project exploring a subset of montane avifauna distribution in the Albertine Rift.

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Natural History, Artists & Detectives

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This Tyrannosaurus bataar dinosaur was at the center of a lawsuit demanding its return to Mongolia. Credit U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York

97803163825331.jpgMammoth-hunting is the closest anyone in our immediate circle has gotten to the kind of story that is on my mind today. Searching the word dinosaur on our platform I see that the story told in the book to the left has had a long trail that I have been following for years. If like me you had youthful dreams of becoming a hunter for pre-history’s wonders you might have thrown around phrases such as “whatever it takes.”

This cautionary tale by Paige Williams might be the antidote for any kid whose instincts are for this kind of sleuthing adventure, which requires rules just like any good game. Speaking of which, longform tale-telling is as much an interest of mine as natural history, and the way this book came to my attention was through an interview with its author.

The Bizarre Tale of the ‘Dinosaur Artist’ Who Trafficked in Stolen Fossils

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John Marshall Mantel for The New York Times

As far as case law goes, there are more consequential decisions than The United States of America v. One Tyrannosaurus Bataar SkeletonFew, however, feature a more charismatic defendant.

In 2013, the United States literally arrested the skeleton of a giant apex predator dinosaur slumbering in a warehouse in Queens. But understanding how this came to be first requires a panoptic survey of everything from the world of the Late Cretaceous period to the 1990s rise of right-wing politics in Mongolia. This is the dizzying task that Paige Williams, a staff writer for The New Yorker, has set for herself in “The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate Trophy.”

What began for her as the tale of an unusual court case involving a rogue fossil hunter unspools in this book into a wide-ranging examination of the ways that commercialism, ambition, politics and science collide. (Just a glance at some of the index’s entries reveals the scope: Genghis Khan, Newt Gingrich, St. Augustine, Stegosaurus and Preet Bharara.) Continue reading

David Attenborough Memoir Has A Captive Audience Here

9781473665958There is a reason why David Attenborough is the name that appears most frequently in these pages over the last seven years. So how did I miss this publication date nine months ago? Now there are several reviews and I am just late to the table. Nevermind that. Just read some of what Frans de Waal, the most recent reviewer, has to say:

The soothing, authoritative voice of David Attenborough has become such a widely recognized feature of nature documentaries that there are now all sorts of spinoffs. Funny animations show gorillas munching on leaves while gossiping about their encounter with the pith-helmeted explorer. Spoof documentaries of our species’ mating rituals show young men drinking beer in a Canadian bar while Attenborough’s voice-over notes that “the air is heavy with the scent of females.” In my classes at Emory University, I show so many snippets of BBC documentaries that I need to warn students that not all of our knowledge about animal behavior comes from this omnipresent talking gentleman. He is just the narrator.

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David Attenborough searching for armadillos. Photograph from David Attenborough

But “just” doesn’t do justice to his role, because Attenborough co-wrote the programs and the insertion of his persona into almost every scene is deliberate. It is the key to the success of “Life on Earth,” “The Blue Planet,” “Planet Earth” and all those other BBC nature series we love. It all started with a 1950s television program featuring animals from the London Zoo. The animals were brought into a studio, where the famous biologist Julian Huxley handled them while explaining their anatomy, habits and special skills. The occasional escapes and other mishaps on this live program greatly contributed to its entertainment value. Continue reading

Henry Worsley & The Importance Of Making Dreams Come True

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Before Henry Worsley set off alone, his family painted messages on his skis. “Come back to me safely, my darling,” his wife wrote.
Photograph by Sebastian Copeland

If you have not read it yet, go straight to it. If you have read it already, next you will want to listen to the author, the subject (via field recordings) and the subject’s wife.

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Henry and Joanna Worsley at the Korean War Veterans Memorial, in Washington, D.C., in 2015. Worsley served in the British Army for thirty-six years.
Photograph courtesy Joanna Worsley

We have linked to stories about explorers, though none specifically about Shackleton, in the past. The subject of this story has something important to say about his hero, and it is worth hearing his voice as well as his wife’s (click here).

The author, who we have linked to more than once, gave two excellent interviews about his process as a long-form story-teller, and if this is your thing, then you will want to listen to both, first here and more recently here.

The White Darkness: A Journey Across Antarctica

A solitary journey across Antarctica.

By David Grann

I. Mortal Danger

Worsley.jpgThe man felt like a speck in the frozen nothingness. Every direction he turned, he could see ice stretching to the edge of the Earth: white ice and blue ice, glacial-ice tongues and ice wedges. There were no living creatures in sight. Not a bear or even a bird. Nothing but him.

It was hard to breathe, and each time he exhaled the moisture froze on his face: a chandelier of crystals hung from his beard; his eyebrows were encased like preserved specimens; his eyelashes cracked when he blinked. Get wet and you die, he often reminded himself. The temperature was nearly minus forty degrees Fahrenheit, and it felt far colder because of the wind, which sometimes whipped icy particles into a blinding cloud, making him so disoriented that he toppled over, his bones rattling against the ground. Continue reading

Werner, Syme & Darwin

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In his nearly five years aboard H.M.S. Beagle, Charles Darwin catalogued a dizzying array of new creatures. But how to show them to the people back home? Illustration by R. Fresson

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It is a fine way to start a new week, thinking of a young person setting sail, and to narrow the focus of that thought, consider color.  We appreciate the notice by Michelle Nijhuis in the current issue of the New Yorker magazine about the upcoming re-issuing of this book, and her comment about it is welcome. Less welcome is the fact that if you click on her link to the book, or search on the title of the book with a fresh search, you will be directed to Amazon. At least if you are searching from the USA. Even from a USA-based search you can find alternatives, but from sources in places such as this excellent shop in the UK, or this one in Scandinavia. With that in mind, if the review below makes you think about purchasing the book, please consider clicking the image to the left which will link you to a bookstore in the USA that is offering it for pre-sale. Either way, enjoy this for now:

The Book That Colored Charles Darwin’s World

“I had been struck by the beautiful colour of the sea when seen through the chinks of a straw hat,” Charles Darwin wrote, in late March, 1832, as H.M.S. Beagle threaded its way through the Abrolhos Shoals, off the Brazilian coast. The water, he wrote, was “Indigo with a little Azure blue,” while the sky above was “Berlin with [a] little Ultra marine.”

Nomen1Darwin, then twenty-three, was only three months into the nearly five-year adventure that would transform his life and, eventually, the way that humans saw themselves and other species. As the voyage’s so-called scientific person, he would collect masses of rocks, fossils, animals, and plants, periodically shipping his specimens to Cambridge in containers ranging from barrels to pillboxes. Like other naturalists of his time, though, his primary documentary tool was the written word, and during the voyage he drew many of his words from a slim volume called “Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours,” published in 1814 by the Scottish artist Patrick Syme.

Nomen2Syme’s guide, a facsimile of which will be released in early February by Smithsonian Books, contains samples, names, and descriptions of a hundred and ten colors, ranging from Snow White to Asparagus Green to Arterial Blood Red to, finally, Blackish Brown. Based on a color-naming system developed in the late eighteenth century by the German mineralogist Abraham Werner, the guide is full of geological comparisons: Grayish White is likened to granular limestone, Brownish Orange to Brazilian topaz. Syme, a flower painter and art teacher, added comparisons from the living world. To Werner’s eyes, the Berlin Blue that Darwin saw in the Atlantic sky resembled a sapphire; to Syme, the wing feathers of a jay. Continue reading

Investigator Of The Abyss

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Courtesy of Museums Victoria / CSIRO

Thanks to National Public Radio (USA) and Kat Lonsdorf for a brief look into the deep work of Tim O’Hara:

Explorers Probing Deep Sea Abyss Off Australia’s Coast Find Living Wonders

Far below the surface of the ocean, off the coast of eastern Australia is an area simply known as “the abyss.” The largest and deepest habitat on the planet, the abyssal zone stretches well beyond Australia’s waters and spans half the world’s oceans — but it remains largely unexplored. Continue reading

Farmers, Loggers & Biodiversity

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Serro Ricardo Franco is in one of the world’s biggest and most diverse ecological reserves. But reality on the ground is different, putting many animals at risk, such as Yacare caiman and giant river otters. Photograph: Angelo Gandolfi/Getty Images/Nature Picture Library

Sometimes, sitting in a glass house, reading the news makes me want to throw a stone. The glass house where I live includes a farm in an extremely biodiverse area. It is surrounded by nearly half a million acres where logging happens. But there is farming, as you can read about in the news below, and there are plenty of better ways of farming; there are loggers like those in the news below, and there are forests where extraction happens according to standards such as those set and enforced by the Forest Stewardship Council.

Instead of throwing a stone, I get up every day and make sure the glass around here is as transparent as possible, because we can demonstrate a better way of supplying food, of harvesting wood, and doing so with the protection of wildlife in constant view. Meanwhile, I do read the news from elsewhere and continue to share it here (thanks to the Guardian’s Jonathan Watts in Vila Bela da Santíssima Trindade for this one):

Wild Amazon faces destruction as Brazil’s farmers and loggers target national park

The Sierra Ricardo Franco park was meant to be a conservation area protecting rare wildlife

To understand why the Brazilian government is deliberately losing the battle against deforestation, you need only retrace the bootmarks of the Edwardian explorer Percy Fawcett along the Amazonian border with Bolivia.

During a failed attempt to cross a spectacular tabletop plateau here in 1906, the adventurer nearly died on the first of his many trips to South America. Back then, the area was so far from human habitation, the foliage so dense and the terrain so steep that Fawcett and his party came close to starvation.

He returned home with tales of a towering, inaccessible mesa teeming with wildlife and irrigated by secret waterfalls and crystalline rivers. By some accounts, this was one of the stories that inspired his friend Arthur Conan Doyle to write The Lost World about a fictional plateau jutting high above the jungle that served as a sanctuary for species long since extinct elsewhere. Continue reading

Old World Trade In Spices, Lessons for 21st Century Leadership Thinking

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“The Return to Amsterdam of the Second Expedition to the East Indies,” painted by Hendrik Cornelisz Vroom, 1599. CreditPhas/UIG, via Getty Images

Amitav Ghosh, who we think of primarily as a writer of fiction, is also an important non-fiction thinker/author, and most recently published “The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable.” This op-ed in the New York Times puts future trade discussions into perspective in the most remarkable setting we can think of at the moment– the spice trade of centuries past. From our perch on the Malabar coast of India this is a welcome bit of history with which to welcome the new year and the challenges ahead:

GOA, India — For many years the word “globalization” was used as shorthand for a promised utopia of free trade powered by the world’s great centers of technological and financial innovation. But the celebratory note has worn thin. The word is now increasingly invoked to explain a widespread recoiling from a cosmopolitan earth. People in many countries are looking nostalgically backward, toward less connected, supposedly more secure times.

But did such an era ever exist? Was there ever an unglobalized world? Continue reading

A Business Model To Fish For

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Heroes are, by definition, not easy to come by. When they get profiled, read it (this one is thankfully not merely fluff):

…The ordeal, and the perspective of middle age, snapped him to attention and caused him to refine the company’s mission. In the eighties, he’d been feeling increasingly uneasy about being a businessman and about the transformations and compromises that seemed inevitably to accompany corporate success. The company, he worried, was straying from its hard-core origins. “I was faced with the prospect of owning a billion-dollar company, with thousands of employees making ‘outdoorlike’ clothing for posers,” he said early in 1991, in a speech to the employees, in which he outlined his misgivings and his new resolutions. These subsequently appeared in the Patagonia catalogue, as a manifesto, under the heading “The Next Hundred Years.” Continue reading

Going Bananas for a Good Cause

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Driving 10,000 miles in a miniature, beat-up car from London to Mongolia might not be everyone’s ideal method to travel around the world (or at least, about 1/3 of the world’s surface). However, this challenge, known as the Mongol Rally, is more than just an unconventional thrill for adventurers. The challenge also requires participants to raise a minimum £1000 for charity, the first half going to Cool Earth, an organization dedicated to protecting endangered rainforest in order to combat global warming, and the rest to the charity of the team’s choosing.

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Team Bananavan from gilmoresdrive.weebly.com

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Expeditions In The Interest Of Science (Secondary Discovery, Nature’s Majesty)

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The survey crew inventories the park for butterfly habitats (Credit: John McLaughlin)

This BBC article, featuring butterfly hunters in the very northwestern-most spot in the lower 48 of the USA, reminds us of an expedition we tracked not long ago:

Equal parts academic and mountain man, wildlife biologist John McLaughlin has scaled mountains and traversed snowbound passes to identify more than 40 butterfly species.

It’s best to bring an ice axe when counting butterflies in North Cascades National Park. Located on the Canadian border in the US state of Washington, the park is renowned for its jagged peaks, limited trails and annual snow pack.

“Before my census crew could learn to identify over 40 butterfly species,” John McLaughlin recalled, “they had to know how to safely traverse snowbound, steep passes and – if necessary – to self-arrest using an ice axe.” Continue reading

A Great Race

As I type this post the 20 4 person co-ed teams participating in the 2016 Patagonia Expedition Race are hopefully getting a good night’s sleep before tomorrow’s Kayak and Rope evaluations. From our collaboration with the organizers, both behind the scenes and in the field, we know the teams are going to need it!

Statistically, fewer than half the teams that start the grueling combination of trekking, mountain biking, kayaking and rope traverses complete the race. The teams receive minimal assistance – basic maps that require extreme orienteering and problem solving – to make the best time from checkpoint to checkpoint in often inhospitable environments.

Imitating the journeys of our Indian forefathers, competitors advance over plains, mountains, glaciers, native forests, swampland, rivers, lakes and channels; guided only by mind and spirit but driven on by physical stamina and experience.

Every edition features a unique route. Past racers have found themselves in the Southern Continental Ice Field, the Strait of Magellan, Torres del Paine, Tierra del Fuego, the Beagle Channel and Cape Horn. The land is diverse, the challenge real, the adventure untamed. Continue reading

How Much Does an Elephant Eat?

An elephant takes in a meal at Elephant’s World, Thailand. PHOTO: Jay Simpson

An elephant takes in a meal at Elephant’s World, Thailand. PHOTO: Jay Simpson

Our love for pachyderms has found multiple expressions on this blog. With us now journeying with Asian Oasis in Thailand and Kerala as home, this love links our efforts in both these lands, serving as common ground for all that we hope to do in tandem with nature. For all that we’ve penned on elephants, we’ve not stopped to think what or rather how much food keeps their giant souls (and stomachs) happy.

Both captive and wild elephants eat a lot, but what else would you expect from one of the largest land animals on the planet? Wild Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) can spend an average of 16-18 hours of every day eating. In the wild they forage for food, constantly searching for roots, small trees, bamboo, grasses, and any other edible plants.

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Notes from a Natural History Museum

Harvard Natural History Museum

I recently had the chance to visit the Harvard Natural History Museum. Despite having lived in Cambridge for nearly a year, and having often thought about visiting the museum when I passed by going to and from my apartment, I had not stopped in until now. What a treat! The collections are full, diverse, and well curated. On this occasion, I spent most of my time in the animal wing, but I plan to return soon to take in the flora and minerals, and spend much more time in choice display rooms (e.g. the absolutely gorgeous Mammals/Birds of the World permanent exhibit: see below for pictures).

A ground sloth skeleton. It is hard to get an idea of the size of this creature from this photo, but it probably weighed several tons while alive!

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Status of the Critically Endangered Jamaican Golden Swallow (summary)

Justin Proctor, Department of Natural Resources, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY

Seth E. Inman, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY

John M. Zeiger, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY

Gary R. Graves, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

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Hispaniolan Golden Swallows in Parque Valle Nuevo, Dominican Republic. (From left to right) Adult in flight; adult perched overtop of artificial nest-box; 25-day-old chicks in nest-box, one day prior to fledging.

The Golden Swallow (Tachycineta euchrysea) is an aerial insectivore and obligate secondary cavity-nester known exclusively to the Caribbean islands of Jamaica and Hispaniola. The Hispaniolan subspecies (T. e. sclateri) was first described in 1866 by the American ornithologist, Charles Barney Cory, and though considered common in the early 1900s, it has become an increasingly rare resident of the highlands of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The subspecies is currently categorized as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Researchers have been studying the life history and breeding biology of the Hispaniolan subspecies since 2012, and initial conservation efforts are currently underway. The nominate Jamaican Golden Swallow race (T. e. euchrysea) was first described in 1847 by the English naturalist, Philip Henry Gosse, and was always considered uncommon, locally distributed, and endemic to Jamaica. Sadly, the Jamaican Golden Swallow subspecies has not been unequivocally observed since the late 1980s. Continue reading

The Rufous-throated Solitaire

Back when I wrote about our ascent of Blue Mountain Peak, I mentioned that the Rufous-throated Solitaire is a bird that can be pretty tough to spot.

In that prior post, I had a picture of the same individual featured in the video above. If you turn the volume up, you can hear all the shrill details of the bird’s call, and imagine sounds like those echoing through the misty hills — the guidebook to Jamaican birds actually describes the vocalizations as “ventriloquial,” which we found to be accurate.  Continue reading