Hello from Catolica

Hello from Catolica!

I arrived at the Catolica research station without a hitch and have been here for just over a week. We’re still on the Tiputini River but about a three hour boat ride closer to civilization. Most noticeably: Catolica is connected by road to the oil stations in the area which ties it much more directly to the outside world. Whereas Tiputini was an isolated station within a sea of rainforest in every direction, human impact is much more apparent here.

Catolica is a very nice station though in many ways it feels much more like a research ‘facility’ than did Tiputini. Tiputini’s buildings were much more rustic and separated by long boardwalks through the rainforest. We had power a few hours a day and most of the buildings were constructed from materials directly from the rainforest. The Catolica research station is a complex of matching white-washed concrete buildings with green metal roofs and white tiled interiors. It is very clean and utilitarian. We’re enjoying the amenities – warm showers and power for all of the waking hours, and the lab space is far superior – we have a big room with sinks and lights and lots of counters, but I find myself somewhat wistful for the more romantic Tiputini station. I’m glad that I’ll be spending one more week there before heading home.

Catolica’s most famous resident is its pet tapir, Amaka. Amaka is wonderful. First of all she is huge, easily 300 pounds and enjoys eating fruit from the hand. For those of you who don’t know what a tapir looks like I’d suggest looking up a picture online. They’re fantastic creatures with an elongated nose reminiscent of the elephant trunk but much shorter. It is extremely dexterous though and she waves it in all directions catching scents on the wind or uses it to scoop fruit into her mouth. She has a long bristly mohawk down her spine that the workers here have dyed blond so that the local indigenous people, the Woarani don’t accidentally roast her. She shuffles around camp, nosing about and loves to be pet under the chin. She’s quite fun.

We’ve been very busy this last week. Shawn had to leave to give a talk in Quito on Monday and so last week we pushed to climb and process the last two trees of the field season. Both trees were near the road and so were being used as samples of moderately disturbed forest. The first tree was climbed without a hitch. It was a tiny, spindly tree and the bromeliads at its top were pretty thin and small. We were again plagued by sweat bees and so, after Shawn had collected the bromeliads we decided to head back to camp instead of having Kenny and I climb the tree for fun. I was a bit disappointed but the bees were appalling.

The next tree was much more of an adventure. It was situated about 30 m away from one of Petrol Ecuador’s biggest processing facilities. They are extremely wary of outsiders looking in on them – the gates are guarded and there is a tall fence around the entire facility. They do not encourage onlookers, but Shawn wanted to climb the tree anyway. We bushwhacked our way through the forest parallel to the road to get to the tree unnoticed. Once there we only talked in whispers (most likely an unnecessary precaution but still, we wanted to be sure not to be noticed) and Shawn began the climb. He had to climb extremely carefully to always be on the backside of the tree away from the guard house. We would talk via walky-talky and every once in a while he would have to duck back behind the tree as a car approached. It felt very clandestine and exciting though in reality we had every right to sample the tree. The facility is right in the middle of Yasuni national park and, while the guards would most likely have spluttered quite a bit about our presence and would have been fairly passionate about all of our camera equipment, we weren’t really in any danger. Shawn sampled the tree without incident and we made it back to the road without exciting a response from the guards.

Curiously, this tree had the richest cache of frogs we’ve yet seen. One of the bromeliads had 7 frogs in it (the previous record was 5 though the vast majority have no frogs at all). All in all we found 10 frogs in the 5 bromeliads and 3 different species which was completely unexpected. While this completely contradicts Shawn’s hypotheses about disturbance and frog abundance it’s certainly an interesting tree. I’ll be curious to see how he interprets it – perhaps roads and petroleum processing facilities are good for frogs and bromeliads!?!

Now that all the trees have been climbed and the bromeliads processed Kenny and I will be spending the majority of our time in the Yasuni National Park Long Term Forest Dynamics half-hectare plot. Kind of a long title but it goes with an extremely important piece of land. Not far from the station a big rectangle has been mapped 1000 by 500 m. This plot has then been broken down into 50, 500 m long transects every 20 m along the long edge of the rectangle. Along this 500 m long transect large PVC pipes have been planted every 20 m in essence creating a 20 m grid of squares. To further organize the plot they’ve broken each 20 m square into subplots 5 m on each side so this entire half hectare is organized into 5 m plots. It’s an astounding piece of work and patience. Walking through the sea of perfectly spaced pvc pipes is quite stunning. Even more impressive though is that through this entire area, every tree greater than 1 cm in diameter at breast height has been identified to species and each has an information tag referencing a massive database back at camp. This inventory is retaken continually and has been going on for over 10 years. There are currently almost 1200 species of tree in this plot earning it the rare distinction of being called a hyper-diverse ecosystem – in fact it is considered the most diverse tree community in the world.

Working in it is quite a privileged – Shawn has to get special permits and permission as access is extremely limited. By virtue of every 1cm tree being cataloged walking through the plot is extremely difficult. The forest here is extremely dense and thick but because every tree has been cataloged you can’t bend or break anything in your path. We were even instructed that if we were to fall we must not grab for any branches or shrubs nearby for fear of hurting trees. Walking these transects is a complicated exercise in carefully moving small saplings, crawling under others and going far out of the way to ensure that trees don’t get harmed. To make matters worse the terrain is frequently very steep and slippery so we were all falling a ton, each time careful to avoid any trees. It typically takes us a full hour to walk the half kilometer transect looking for bromeliads. Our first trip out was an extreme exercise in patience. Of course halfway through one of our transects it began to pour rain. We huddled under trees until it passed and continued on but by the end of the day we were sopping wet and absolutely filthy – another good day in the field!

People have been asking about the food I’ve been having here, I’m happy to report it’s been quite excellent overall. We have 3 meals a day prepared for us and each is a feast. I’m told that almost all of the dishes are traditional Ecuadorian meals as well so it’s fun to have a bit of a feel for the local fare. Lunch and dinner always consist of a soup along with a plate of some combination of meat, rice and salad. The meats have ranged from fish to lamb to beef to chicken. Frequently the meat is a bit more “natural” than I’d enjoy back home but it is always well cooked with interesting sauces. I’ve had more variations on rice and potato side dishes than I can name. Salads range from a simple iceberg lettuce and tomatoes to beans to mixed root veggies. In addition, it seems almost every meal there is a study on plantain; fried plantain, caramelized plantain, mashed plantain, pureed plantain, baked plantain, chopped and fried plantain. The variations seem to be nearly endless and all quite delicious.

I’ll send out another update before too long, we had an exciting day today going to the local Woarani village but I’ll save that story for the next note. I hope you all are well back in the States.

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