Amazon Giant, Yasuni National Park, Ecuador

Amazon Giant, Yasuni National Park, Ecuador
There’s an old Cree Indian prophecy that goes "Only after the last tree has been cut down... Only after the last river has been poisoned… Only after the last fish has been caught, only then will you find that money cannot be eaten." I find these words clever yet profoundly insightful, and more meaningful today than ever. Across the globe, vital ecosystems are disappearing at an alarming rate, a rate matched only by the speed with which the species inhabiting those systems are falling to extinction. This is particularly true in the Neotropics, where an extraordinary diversity of plants and animals are struggling with the catastrophic consequences of widespread deforestation and pollution. Many of the forests’ secrets elude ecologists, secrets whose answers will be essential if we are to protect the awesome biodiversity they contain. I study Neotropical butterfly ecology, with the hope that I may contribute to a better understanding of these wonderful creatures, and help conserve them in an uncertain future. Follow me during my work and adventures throughout Latin America here!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Illegal gold mining in the Peruvian Amazon

Wednesday, 14 March, 2012

Today I travelled from Cusco, the imperial Inca city in the southern highlands of Peru, to Puerto Maldonado in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon. I’m here to scout locations for a trip later this year, in which I hope to gain an understanding of host-plant use by the clearwing butterflies that I’ve studied previously in Ecuador.

Along the way, from the small airplane window, I noticed a very long, wide swath of muddy pits and pools following the length of a meandering river in the Amazonian lowlands before Puerto Maldonado. Probably in denial – I had heard that illegal open pit gold mining was a problem in the area – I assumed it was a flooded river, or some sort of natural geological formation at any rate. No way was this a gold mine, many kilometers in length and probably several in width – the scale of the thing was just too massive.
Google Earth screenshot of Madre de Dios province. Puerto Maldonado is at the right, the brown spot on the bottom left is a gigantic area of open pit gold mines. You can see it from outer space (i.e. zoomed out much further).

When I arrived at the tiny jungle airstrip in Puerto, as it’s called, I asked a local man what we had seen from the plane. He confirmed that it was indeed illegal mining.

I was absolutely shocked.


I asked the man if I could share a mototaxi – a small motorcycle-taxi hybrid – to town to find a hotel, and as we left the airport we were informed that the road into town was blocked by protesters. No rickshaws were waiting outside, so we set off walking, not heeding the warning.

Eventually a mototaxi passed and we negotiated with the reluctant driver to take us to town. Sure enough, after a kilometer or so the road was blocked by a pile of trees and concrete rubble. A couple of detours similarly resulted in dead-ends. Two men with motorcycles offered to take us a bit further, and they took us as far as they could – we were stopped by a massive protest.

A block ahead of the protest were police in riot gear. There were lots of gunshots. Suddenly, a helicopter approached, flying overhead, and circled around an area of a few blocks, dropping canisters of teargas into the crowds. People were running, I heard someone shouting a protester had been shot and killed.

All this time, I had no idea what to do – I had no place to go, no idea where I was going anyway, and to make matters worse I stuck out like a giant sore thumb. This day was going from bad to worse. 

I decided to hang out for a while and wait until things calmed down a bit – that didn’t really happen, so I decided to just walk around the main street, and by the grace of all that is good I found the one hotel – the one building in fact – that was open. Relieved and safely inside, I immediately began to ask what was happening.

Helicopter circling over Puerto Maldonado as it drops tear gas canisters on protesters

The government recently launched a crackdown on illegal gold-mining in the area. Apparently, the people protesting in the streets were upset because they felt the government was taking no steps to make the mining legal – they were simply confiscating the machines and fining people and putting them in prison.

While I sympathize with the miners – this place is quite poor, and people can make in a day what an average worker makes in nearly a month – the magnitude of the destruction is astonishing. There are something like 30,000 illegal miners in the Madre de Dios province, each of whom clears trees and then uses heavy pumps to blast open gigantic pits in the earth. Gold is then extracted from sludge using mercury, which is dumped into the local rivers by the ton. Clearly, this is as toxic as it is unsustainable, and the both rainforest and people’s health – not to mention future – is being devastated for very short term gain.

No news yet on the outcome of the protests, but I did hear they’re planning to continue through the week. This isn’t the first time something similar has happened, and the result each time has been several people dead and no resolution. What we can likely bet on is that the mining won’t stop quickly enough. Then again, other options probably won’t be available to people in this remote jungle outpost any time soon either.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Back from the Field

I'm back now in Gainesville, after what has been my most unsuccessful trip to date, at least in terms of the number of butterflies I've collected. As I mentioned in my previous post, my fish bait didn't work very well in attracting butterflies, although it has worked wondrously in Ecuador and to a lesser degree in Panama. While it's disappointing to not collect much, I'm left instead with lots of interesting questions. Why a bait should work well in one area but not another, even among the same species, is very mysterious. I plan to explore this topic in greater detail in the months to follow... until then Merry Christmas!

Monday, October 31, 2011

Where have all the butterflies gone?... Parasites part II

A bit over three weeks into my stay here at La Selva, I’m sad to report that I’m not having much luck finding my butterflies. Although many of the same species occur here as at my other sites in Ecuador and Panama, they are not visiting my traps as frequently as in those places. I’ve only collected about 6 species in total, and although they are all things that I would expect to find, 5 of the 6 are represented by a single individual (the other, Zaretis itys, is actually quite abundant). Thinking that perhaps the butterflies here might have a different bait preference (I typically use rotting fish, whereas most people working with butterflies in Costa Rica use rotten or over-ripe fruits), I began to experiment with a  mixture of old bananas and sugar – but still, almost no butterflies. While this is, in itself, an interesting phenomenon, it makes the difficult, dirty work in the field feel decidedly futile, and the situation is overall quite discouraging. I think that abundance is generally just lower here than in other places – for example, in Ecuador one regularly sees butterflies in my target groups patrolling forest edges and light gaps, something I have rarely witnessed here so far. The weather is almost certainly a factor, as it has rained almost every day since my arrival, and butterflies generally do not fly without at least some sun. Some folks here have also suggested that pesticides might be a factor – the area surrounding the station is heavily planted with banana and pineapple, which are both heavily sprayed with pesticides. While I personally doubt it is very important, especially considering all the other insects that I typically expect in my traps, including many flies and beetles, are extremely abundant, there is a possibility that pesticides are drifting over from adjacent fields and affecting butterflies. Whatever the cause, it is making for a very frustrating time.

An Adelpha butterfly, one that I would expect to find in my traps.

Another of my guys - this one is Opsiphanes.

On a brighter note, my cutaneous larva migrans has grown by leaps and bounds! It started just on the upper side of my left hand, and has now spread around to my palm and to two spots on my chest and left shoulder. And all this after taking two different nematicides! I’m thinking it’s time for medication round two… for now, maybe I can at least spin this as a Halloween costume?? I just need to return from the field and I’m dirty, smelly, parasite-ridden field biologist man!

It grows!! And itches like mad!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Tropical Parasites

Thursday, 20 October 2011

The tropical rainforest is not a place that lends itself readily to simple generalizations, but if I had to chose just one word to describe this place, I’d probably go with ‘diversity’. That’s one of the biggest reasons I’m in Costa Rica – the rainforest here at La Selva contains an almost overwhelming and beautiful diversity of plants and animals. Another dimension of tropical diversity though, one which relatively few people are interested in, is a staggering variety of tropical parasitic diseases. Everyone knows of a few – malaria, for example, is a global scourge caused by parasitic Plasmodium protists that kills nearly a million people a year worldwide. But there are myriad others, and while many are far less dangerous than malaria, they are nonetheless highly problematic and often exceedingly disgusting. An array of fungi attack every imaginable part of the body, like mycosis, which is highly prevalent in the tropics. Other microorganisms, like bacteria, protists, and a large assortment of various tiny worms cause dreadful diseases like leishmaniasis, schistosomiasis, elephantiasis, typhoid, cholera, and Chaga’s disease. Yet others simply feed on the human body without resulting in ‘disease’; one such organism, a small nematode worm known as cutaneous larva migrans, has recently made it my first Costa Rican parasite for 2011!

I noticed it a few days ago, though I thought I had just another itchy bug bite. When the ‘bite’ began to take on a serpentine shape, I started to suspect something more sinister. Sure enough, my symptoms matched perfectly with cutaneous larva migrans, a disease caused by tiny hookworms buried under the skin. The worms are unable to penetrate the deeper layers of the skin, hence the visible pathways they follow as the feed. Whatever they are and whatever they’re doing in me, they itch like crazy and I want them gone!

Cutaneous larva migrans, the hookworms that are making doodle art out of my hand

That might be pretty gross, but it’s nothing compared to perhaps the most infamous tropical parasite of all – the botfly. I had the bad luck (or good luck??) of getting four of them this past summer on a trip to Panama. The eggs of the fly are vectored by another insect, often a mosquito – the female botfly captures the mosquito and deposits a number of eggs on her. Then, when the mosquito approaches its warm-blooded host, the botfly eggs hatch and the larvae burrow into the host (in the case of the human botfly, the human) where they develop. When ready to pupate, they simply drop out of the host and then complete the life cycle. I think I may have been bitten by the same mosquito four times, because I had four botfly larvae of approximately equal age, one on each arm, one on my back, and a very painful one on the webbing between two of my fingers. They shift under the skin periodically, causing bleeding and extreme pain. It’s funny – despite that pain and blood, it didn’t occur to me that I even had botflies until I could actually see the larvae breathing through their tiny holes in my skin!

Baby botfly larva, how cute!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

La Selva, Costa Rica

A few days ago I arrived in San Jose, Costa Rica, and headed down to the Caribbean lowlands to La Selva, the Organization for Tropical Studies’ (OTS) flagship tropical rainforest research site. At the moment the station is very busy (it usually is), with several short- and long-term tropical biology courses and a number of researchers, research assistants, and even natural history tourists visiting. Indeed, over the years thousands of students have been trained in a variety of courses at both the graduate and undergraduate levels, and a multitude of scientific papers have been published based on work conducted at La Selva and other OTS research sites spanning a variety of topics ranging from evolution and systematics to ecosystem-level studies.

La Selva itself is located on a 1,600 hectare reserve in the Sarapiqui canton of northwestern Costa Rica. To the south the property borders Braulio Carrillo National Park, which at 46,000 hectares forms the core conservation unit of the Cordillera Volcanica Central Biosphere Reserve. Together, these protected areas form a vast forested corridor that extends from low elevations at La Selva (ca. 30 – 100m) to over 2,900 meters at Volcan Barva in Braulio Carrillo. Four protected life zones provide refuge for a large number of plants and animals, including over 5,000 species of vascular plants, over 400 species of resident and migratory birds, diverse mammals and herpetofauna (reptiles and amphibians), and innumerable arthropods (bugs!).

Stone Bridge connects the two halves of the La Selva campus divided by Rio Puerto Viejo and provides access to the reserve.

I’m here at La Selva for several reasons, all related to my graduate work at the University of Florida (UF) on the relationship between abundance and distribution in Neotropical butterflies. First, I hope to expand my consideration of scale. For my master’s degree at UF, I showed that there was no relationship between abundance and distribution among butterfly species in eastern Ecuador. As I’ve detailed in previous posts, I collected abundance measures at 5 sites there, covering a large portion of the eastern lowlands. However, I compared those abundance measures to those species’ global range-sizes, which almost always extended well beyond the region in which I gathered abundance data, and occasionally even throughout the entire Neotropical zone. Abundance data from Costa Rica will help to minimize the difference in scale between measures of abundance and distribution. In addition, there are a number of species that I expect to find here that are not present in South America, thereby increasing the number of species in my analyses. Finally, I hope to begin to prepare for a future trip to Peru that I plan for 2012-2013 in which I will be looking at the breadth of host-plant utilization among ithomiine butterflies, in an attempt to explain some of the patterns that I have observed. Learning their host plants is an obvious requisite for that, and I will spend some time here teaching myself plant identification.  

I’ll be here for the next month or so, and I’ll have lots more to say about this place and what I’m doing here, stay tuned!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Earth stewardship in Latin America, for all

Tonight I attended a special session of the Ecological Society of America’s 2011 annual meeting, entitled “Earth Stewardship in Latin America: Challenges and Opportunities,” part of a broader meeting to explore ways of “preserving and enhancing earth’s life-support systems.” Indeed, the challenges faced by stewards in Latin America are many, and they are great. To begin with, the forests, rivers, and savannahs of Latin America are home to an overwhelming majority of all species in the Americas. Yet there are few ecologists to speak of there, at least in comparison to countries further north, and particularly the United States. One of the session’s organizers put it well: if you wanted to map where the Americas’ species are, as well as where the scientists, financial resources, and technical capacity are to study them, you’d in fact need two separate maps. Obviously, Latin America has no hope of environmental stewardship if there are no ecologists trained for the job. But why are there so few ecologists in Latin America, despite its vast natural wealth and mounting ecological concerns? The answer, I believe, is fundamentally an economic one. There simply isn’t enough money to train them, and even less to provide any powerful incentive to return once they’ve left to pursue careers in ecology abroad. And what’s worse, these economic woes show no signs of drastic improvement, at least not on any timescale that will be meaningful to addressing the current biodiversity crisis. So we might be wise to consider alternatives. I think one worthwhile approach is the promotion of collaboration among stakeholders, and since Latin America’s ecosystems, and primarily its tropical forests, are among the earth’s most significant “life-support” systems, that puts us all squarely in the stakeholder category. That said, resources should be allocated from where they are available, in order to meet a challenge whose consequences we all face. Being, myself, a passionate, aspiring tropical ecologist and conservationist, I certainly believe and hope that together, we as a global community of concerned and aware citizens, scientists, and neighbors, can rise to meet the challenge of earth stewardship in Latin America.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Party's Over

Sadly, this will be my last entry for this blog. I’m back from Ecuador, getting settled back in here in Gainesville, FL. I spent some time in Canada for Christmas, which was quite a brutal shock from the warm weather in the Amazon. And to think I was feeling the chill in Quito!

As you can see, I am no longer in the Amazon.

I brought my 3,300 butterflies back with me with no snags. They’re all dried and in small envelopes, with the wings folded behind the back, which means that now begins the rather monumental task of spreading them. That involves relaxing the butterflies by injecting water, and then spreading them open on a special board and fixing the wings with pins and small strips of paper. At a rate of about 10 per hour, it’s going to take a while. Fortunately, I had the foresight to identify most of my specimens in the field, so there are relatively few butterflies that I must spread with any urgency.

If I can only make it through the winter, I’m already looking forward to my next field trip… In the meantime, there’s plenty to keep me busy. There are many questions that I’d like to try to answer for Neotropical butterflies – namely, what is the relationship between abundance and distribution. But there are also many other questions, and my hope is that by searching for the answers to those questions I may help build the knowledge base that is crucial to better understand and protect these beautiful animals.

Please visit my Flickr page to see some photos of butterflies and other creatures from the trip: