At the end of September 2014, a team of intrepid researchers set out into the wilds of eastern Guyana on the northern coast of South America, to track down and document the region’s abundant wildlife, ranging from the small invertebrate (bullet ants) to larger mammals (puma). The forests of south-central Guyana are among the least studied and most biologically diverse forest types in the Guianas. Until now, biologists have never studied the Upper Berbice River region, located between the upper reaches of the Berbice Rier and the Corentyne River, along the border with Suriname. A few members of that team, including GWC’s Director of Global Biodiversity Exploration Dr. Leeanne Alonso, capture their experiences here.
Wild life: September 21, 2014
By Leeanne Alonso
We arrived at the Berbice River Camp around 7 p.m. last night, so had to unload and set up our hammocks in the dark. Fortunately an advance team had already set up the frame for the sleeping tent, and our cook, Colette, had already prepared some delicious Guyanese food for us. Our camp consists of a long sleeping tent covered by four very large tarps, a small lab tent, and a cooking tent. Tall, dense, pristine forest surrounds us, teeming with wildlife for us to find and document.
Seeing the forest for the trees: September 22, 2014
By Leeanne Alonso
As we walk through the fairly open understory of the forest, we are surrounded by palm trees. Our survey team botanist, Santos Miguel Nino, and his Guyanese team members, Zola Narine and Isaac Johnson, have documented at least eight species of palms so far. Astrocarium sp. and Bactris sp. are the most common—both are well adapted to the seasonal flooding of the region. As we walk, we also encounter the large expansive buttresses holding up the very large trees, particularly Sweilara spp. These are beautiful and are important for reaching nutrients in the poor soil and providing stability to the tree.
The trees are the foundation of the forest, providing the structure, shelter, nesting sites, and food for all the inhabitants. Euterpe sp. palms bear fruit for toucans, small mammals, and many other forest animals. Cecropia provide fruits important for bats and sloths. Camsiandra comosa y C. laurifolia are common along the river and provide fruits for the large fruit-eating fish in the river.
Uncle Johno: September 22, 2014
By Liz Condo
At 80 years of age, Uncle Johno is the oldest member of the GWC-WWF Berbice survey team. As a member of the botany team, he offers extensive knowledge of the more than 4,000 species of trees found in Guyana. Isaac grew up a ways up river from the team’s Berbice camp. A member of the Arawak tribe, he attended four years of primary school as a child. The remainder of his education has been self-taught. He first learned to write by tracing over the writing of others. He learned the common names of the trees of his childhood forest, then taught himself their Latin names from a book gifted him by a relative. With a lifetime of knowledge and experience, Isaac can generally identify a tree by examining its bark and leaves. Following that he looks to see if it’s flowering or bearing fruit. Finally, he can often identify the tree by the scent it releases when the bark is cut. Isaac has held many positions in his lengthy career. He worked in a sawmill, then for the forestry commission and now as a private consultant. He teaches locally at the School of Forestry and has traveled extensively throughout Central and South America lecturing on the trees of Guyana. He was recently recognized for his life’s work with an award from the Minister of Amerindian Affairs. Isaac is the head of a large family. He has 12 children, 47 grandchildren and 16 great grandchildren. He has tried to retire three times but keeps getting called back. He continues to enjoy field work despite its challenges. The work can keep him away from home for five months at a time, find him riding on the back of ATVs or climbing mountains in the Rupununi, all the while keeping pace with scientists half his age.
The night shift: September 23
By Liz Condo
Night falls quickly in the forest. Surrounded by towering trees, there is no horizon on which to view the setting sun. As the intense light and heat of the afternoon begins to fade, the first notes of the evening chorus signal the day’s end. The darkness of the forest is deep and vast, but it is not still. Many animals become most active under cover of night, and so must the scientists that study them.
Evening is an important time for many of the expedition’s scientists. Just after sunset, Indranee, Wally and Carlisa of the small mammal team set out to open their mist nets. They return within a half hour to check for captured bats, then every hour afterward until they close the nets around 10 p.m. The process of removing a netted bat is a delicate one, requiring patience and skill. Once the fine strands of the net are untangled from the often feisty captures, the bat is placed into a small cloth bag for later study.
Darkness also signals the start of the herpetology team’s nightly walk. They leave camp armed with headlamps, snake tongs and large Ziploc bags. Often scoping out potential sites in daylight, Andrew Snyder along with local team members Major and Fred, spend the evening hours tromping through swamps and streams to better understand which animals live in the areas being surveyed. Especially during the dry season, night is the best time for the team to track down a wide variety of frogs, lizards, snakes and turtles.
After a long day of sifting through streams and puddles searching for tiny water beetles, entomologist Andrew Short spends his evenings letting the beetles come to him. A black light placed behind a white sheet attracts insects of all types, including water beetles. Throughout the evening Snyder inspects the sheet closely, looking for potential specimens before capturing them in a small vial.
The earliest riser of the team, ornithologist Brian O’Shea, wakes hours before sunrise. Often beginning his long walks between 3:30 and 4 a.m. he heads to a spot far outside of the team’s base camp to set up his audio recording equipment. Sitting quietly in the final hour of darkness, he is in place before the birds begin to stir, starting his recording of the dawn chorus at 4:30 a.m.
If the forest never sleeps, then neither do the scientists that study this complex ecosystem. Working long into the night, they sacrifice sleep for the sake of science.
Caiman alert: September 24, 2014
By Leeanne Alonso
The Berbice River is full of large black caiman. The Berbice survey team counted 16 in less than a kilometer at night. These reptiles are heavily hunted near human settlements, so seeing so many in the wild is a rare treat. Unless, of course, you are in a small boat at night with only inches between you and the caiman. Andrew Snyder, survey team herpetologist, along with camp coordinator Danny Gordon and our intrepid local boatman, Major Deberu, headed out last night to photograph the caiman. One 10-foot caiman took interest in their expedition and headed toward them, without stopping. As it came alongside the boat, it tried to bite the boat. Major quickly turned the boat around and headed away from this bold (hungry?) caiman. Needless to say, we don’t swim in that river!
Ant paradise: September 25, 2014
By Leeanne Alonso
Ant paradise! As in most tropical forests, ants are everywhere. As the survey team myrmecologists (ant specialists), Michael Branstetter and I are in heaven. We take leaf litter samples to find all the tiny ants living in the leaf litter. We also use a machete to break open rotting logs and dig into the soil to find ant nests. We found many nests of bullet ants (Paraponera clavata), which is one of the largest ants in the world. It has a very painful sting, so we work very carefully around them! The ant diversity of this forest is sure to be high. Much of this forest likely floods during the rainy season, so we wonder where soil and leaf litter ants go during that time. It is likely that some move up into the vegetation but that the majority survive underground in small pockets of air. It’s a tough life out here for an ant!