Thursday, July 31, 2014

Degrees of peligroso

One of the first new Spanish words I learned when coming to the Peru was “peligroso” (translation: "dangerous!"). Far as I can tell, there isn’t supplemental vernacular to differentiate degrees of peligroso, since over the course of one afternoon, it was used both to warn me about potential a tripping hazard (a tap root across a foot path) and to get me the hell away from a Fer-de-lance resting on some floating vegetation.
A WALKING TREE!!! It can Literally walk. Seriously. Google it.
It's hard not to embrace my inner Tarzan and go crazy on these lianas. But alas, branches across the trail have been known to take people down...
Yesterday we were out fishing in the channel (the lake is officially off limits because of the low water level), and I saw an adorable fluffy caterpillar floating on the water surface. I picked it up with the end of my ansuelo (fishing rod [look at all the Spanish I know!]) and showed it to Pool, who immediately “peligroso-ed” me and set to getting it off the boat. Turns out whatever-it-was was incredibly poisonous, and depending on whom you ask, it could kill you within the span of a few hours or a few days. I took some pics, Pool set it free, and I learned, once again, to Touch Nothing, EVER, without asking first.
"I'm Not That Innocent..."
[UPDATE! 16 October 2014: Thanks to a student ID, I now know that these guys are the larval form of the Saturniid moths, and the bristles inject deadly venom that causes internal bleeding, brain and lung hemorrhaging, and inevitable death. Treatment includes a good washing with soap and water, duct tape adhesion to the injection site (seriously!, to get the bristles out), followed by death. Thanks, Alex!]

Fishing has slowed considerably over the past week (one day we caught zero fish in the net; the next day we caught just one sad wolf fish…), but things have finally picked up a bit. As water levels drop and oxygen levels plummet, fish make the move from the lake back out into the channel and main river segments, and instead of just wolf fish (yawn) and armored catfish, we caught a good variety of piranhas and cichlids (dear, dear cichlids!) yesterday. My posse of boat fisherman even managed to snag a couple fish I still needed to fill out my isotope food web sample set (blog post pending...), so ELLEN FOR THE WIN!!!
This guy doesn't look that interesting until you Open His Mouth! They are seed-eaters and have teeth that are rabbit-esque.
Euclides declared himself the best fisherman ever when the net was FULL of these armored catfish. I was less than thrilled when it took an hour to get them all out...
We caught this too.
An adorable little pygmy flycatcher
The canoe folks saw this little fella flailing around in the water on their way back from setting the net. We just happened to have a bird expert on board that day (Rob, my fellow American!), and he figured the bird had recently fledged and was still getting the hang of flying/diving in the river. They pulled him out of the current, Rob found a safe place for him in the trees, and Little Bird lives another day.
Breaking my own rule, I didn't ask if this little buddy was safe or not. I didn't die, so I'm assuming it's all good.
A random storm hit us just before we could measure fish, and instead of the warm showers we've all grown accustomed to, the chilly rain made the river water feel like a hot tub in comparison. Second lesson of the day: never forget your poncho, since apparently getting caught in the rain will get you a stern peligroso from the boat nurse. I managed to pick up a cold a few days ago, and Marta, the nurse, was worried that my soaked bits would worsen my stuffed sinuses and headache. I suspect I'll be just fine in a few days. 
It's a bad sign when you head out and see this on the horizon, but we are Hard Core and cannot be deterred by a little rain (or so I told the kiddos...)
Pool makes me hold his smokes in my drybag when the rain comes. Peru is not messing around when it comes to smoking-while-pregnant warnings.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Isotopes. Stable ones.

It’s not so easy to get to the Amazon, and it’s even harder to get the right permits to collect data in a protected reserve in Peru.
VIVA PERU!!! We happened to be on site for Peruvian Independence Day, which is a Big Deal in Peru (as it should be.) Photo by Greta
But in general, in life, I operate under the assumption that I may not pass this way again, and so I try my hardest to make the most of a situation, no matter what.  Since most of the hard logistical stuff had already been worked out by the folks running the show here, I thought I’d seize the opportunity and gather as much data as I could this summer while simultaneously pretending to be on vacation.
As an end-of-the-summer-treat, we had the great pleasure of participating in the first-ever PV2 Olympics. Despite our best efforts and intentions, and due to a very unfortunate translation debacle, what should have been a Canoe Dream Team (Nico, Ellen, Samwell) resulted in a disappointing loss. In order, those are the faces of "WE COULD HAVE WON," "Meh...yay for trying," and "We were racing?" 
As I type, things are still a bit in flux (the lack of interwebs makes it difficult to get in touch with folks in the Know…), but the wheels are in motion and I got the initial clearance to use inevitable gill net mortality for the advancement of science.
Other fish mortalities were NOT used for the advancement of science; instead we smoked them on a palm-frond barbeque that was delicious. In unrelated news, at 5' 8", I am a giant in Peru.
Thanks to all our previous work on Lake Tanganyika, my brain automatically thinks in terms of food web relationships whenever I enter a new ecosystem. And so in the 11th hour (literally hours before I left for Peru), Pete and I set to fleshing out the details of how I could use the gillnet catches to amass a muscle tissue sample set for stable isotope analysis.
There are some armored-catfish surprises here and there, so we have THAT to look forward to (there are quite a few different species of carachama, though they all look pretty much the same, dead, in a bowl of broth, looking back at you...)
When I first arrived, all was easy. The water levels were near-peak (but falling), fish were living it up (eating, having babies) in the flooded forest, and diversity was high. Interested onlookers offered to help with fish dissections and take photos of each sample or write in my log book when my hands were too bloody or slimy to hold the pencil. And since it’s my secret mission to educate the world on the incredible properties (and existence) of otoliths, others watched in awe and horror as I picked around brain tissue to find those precious stones (completely unrelated to current scientific pursuits, but since we were already in there…). I measured gut lengths and rummaged through stomach contents to get a sense of trophic position and recent diet, and (most importantly), I got that tiny piece of muscle tissue so we can (hopefully) reconstruct the food web. 
One of my favorite things to do is go set/retrieve the gillnets with the Peruvian guides. Euclides and I made our way into water lettuce heaven one day, but all we really caught was wolf fish (yawn).
And then everything changed.

The water has come down about 20 feet since I first arrived.
It's kind of hard to appreciate the depth change until you need to get back on the boat from shore. Then Shit Get's Real...
Instead of motoring up to the lake and parking the boat in the forest, we’re suddenly in danger of grounding the boat. The lake I assumed to be a permanent park fixture will dry up completely in the coming months. Instead of 40 or so fish of moderate diversity, we started catching LOTS (hundreds) of ONE species of fish (local name carachama, the once-endearing armored catfish). They’re common aquarium fish in the US since they eat algae.
This has become our go-to fishing spot, and our days here are numbered as well. Here, Pool's on a quest to retrieve a piranha that feel between the floorboards (a common problem in our world).
I usually leave the net-emptying to the experts, but on that particular day I offered to help Euclides (who was giggling like a little kid at catching so many fish) since we were running out of daylight. A thousand tiny cuts ensued, but I think I gained some street cred in the process. Carachama soup is a delicacy here, so we kept some for dinner. I think I expected chunks of meat in some kind of broth, but instead I was presented a bowl full of broth and a giant fish staring back at me.
Death by a thousand cuts. It probably saved us at least 30 minutes when I joined the remove-carachama-from-the-gillnet quest, but there were consequences...
"Mmmm...." (stifles gag reflex...)
I’m not sure how this will play out for my research purposes, but I still have 2 weeks to go. Here’s hoping. 
Even under the worst of circumstances, it's hard to get too worked up when you have sunsets like this on a nightly basis. (I think Mario took this picture)
[UPDATE! and not a good one. My boss says the food web probably isn't "complete enough" to be "useful" (I'm struggling to remember why I work for this person...). Plus they samples in question are still technically stuck in Peru since I don't have the permits in place yet. Ho hum. Yay for trying??]

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Just another day on the river

Unlike real life, our days on the river have (incredibly) refused to become boring even though we all (loosely) follow a pretty rigid daily routine. And instead of mindlessly going through the motions of life (like the zombies we all have it in us to be), the Amazon requires that you sit up and notice since *Amazing Things* can literally happen at any given second.
Pool found me this stick bug one day, so of course I made him pose for a ridiculous number of photos (and since Pool gave it to me, I assumed it was safe...)
And Mario found this adorable (non-poisonous) snake out in the jungle, so I made him play with me too.
The other day, one of my favorite students was brushing his teeth out on the deck of the Scary Boat Full Of Undergrads and spotted a reptilian head sticking out of the water. Within the span of 10 minutes, Ormenio (one of my faithful fishing guides) used a makeshift tool to extract a GIANT ANACONDA from the river! (WHAaaaaa!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)

Brief aside: I absolutely adore Ormenio. And Euclides. And Samwell (I could go on…). Most of the guides grew up on the river in villages nearby, and their skill/knowledge/patience/sincerity blows me away (swoon).

So…back to the anaconda.

It was Pretty Big, but since they can get up to 40 feet (supposedly, says a book I read recently), I guess we're lucky it was "small".

Swimming is supposedly forbidden here (on account of there being so many things in the water that want us dead), but the rule is rarely enforced and folks have become increasingly lackadaisical the longer we're here. Point being, a good wakeup call was in order. All in all, She (it was a girl, as evidenced by the way the tail tapered) was a respectable 3.6 meters (12 feet, give or take).

After everyone got the appropriate amount of photo-documentation, we stood and watched as she made her way back to the river to get on with the business of being an anaconda.

About 30 minutes later, Mario caught another one (a smaller male), but I’d already taken off for afternoon fishing and missed the less dramatic sequel. Had I stayed, I would have gotten to hold it, but alas, I digress...  
And that's life on the river. You can just be standing on the deck of the boat, brushing your teeth or whatever, and witness the incredible. A few days ago, the girls on the dolphin survey spotted an odd blob mid-river, and upon inspection discovered a sloth attempting to swim to the opposite bank (they gave him a lift to the other side).
NOT a sloth (but a pretty impressive termite mound, I should think.)
On at least 2 occasions, Team Dolphin has witnessed pink river dolphins drowning cormorants, so it would appear there's yet another species that kills for the fun of it. 

While out setting the gillnet with Ormenio, a student saw a couple giant river otters* (they can be 2m long!), and others saw evidence of an arowana (one of my must-see Amazon fishes!) while emptying the nets.
WE CAUGHT ONE (actually THREE) later on this summer, but that story's still coming ;).
Camera traps strategically placed on several transects have captured the likes of jaguars, armadillos, anteaters, and tapirs that daily go unseen but stealthily live among us.
Panthera onca (jaguar) up close. If I'd just been surprised by a random camera flash in the middle of the night, I'd probably go investigate as well...
It’s a good reminder to keep looking. And not to take any of it for granted.
Pool, not taking any of it for granted
Two weeks from today we’ll be making our way back to Iquitos to start the journey back home. I’m starting to miss stupid things, like cheese and granola and gin and tonics, but it will be hard to return to a desk and data analysis and pointless meetings. On a daily basis, I remind myself to take it all in...because all too soon, it will be over.
Making the most of a free afternoon; Why NOT play a game of human chess?
* Despite MANY attempts to see the giant river otters (lobo del rio!) in person, those wily beasts evaded me all summer. I did get Euclides to show me what they sounded like, so that's basically the same thing... (sorry it's sideways)

Sunday, July 20, 2014


I Hate gill nets. So much. They’re one of the dirtiest fishing methods around, but if your end goal is to eat every fish you catch, it’s a pretty good choice I suppose. Our fishing surveys are meant to mimic the fishing methods of local Cocama Indians so appropriate take quotas can be set for the Reserve; but instead of keeping the fish, we count/weigh/measure each fish and put it back in the river.
The village of Bolivar is just a couple hours downriver. They're better at fishing than we are...
Ten percent mortality is written into the permit, but I suspect it’s much (MUCH) higher than that, as mangled fish become easy targets for larger predators once we “release them Live” (just slightly worse for the wear..).
So it's possible that not all the fish make it back to the river. It's really hard to let those big Oscars go...
Plus, we sometimes catch things that aren’t fish.
These armored catfish are especially hard to get out of the nets, but they sure are adorable.
When it was time to bring in the net yesterday, Ormenio and Paul kept pointing at the net and saying something that sounded like, “kooshoory!,” which I soon realized meant that hat 5 Neotropical cormorants were wrapped tightly in our nets. Two had already drowned, and I set off in the canoe with Ormenio to see how this would all play out. With the aid of a stick and a quick grab, Ormenio managed to free the live birds, and I went to work on the ones that were dead.
Ormenio assesses the situation and sets to untangling a Very Pissed-off Bird...
...and VOILA! 
Maybe just slightly worse for the wear
Recently the population of wading birds in the Pacaya Samira has skyrocketed as thousands of egrets and cormorants follow the small fish as they begin moving out of the lake (falling water levels and all). A few dead birds here and there probably isn’t going to make a big difference in the long run, but dead birds in the fishing gear does break my heart.  
I don't really know how these guys keep getting caught, but here we are.
We catch the occasional turtle here and there, but they’re easy enough to free unharmed. I’ve heard rumors they caught an anaconda in the net last year, but so far (fingers crossed) we haven’t had to deal with that (HOW WOULD YOU???). But that's a problem for Future Ellen...

Tuesday, July 15, 2014


Fishing just once a day (as opposed to twice) is Changing My Life, and I've been taking full advantage of opportunities to go off into the forest and get my butt off the boat. It’s pure heaven to stretch my legs and bend my squeaky knees (they literally squeak...), even if doing so requires coating all exposed skin in DEET, schlepping through calf-deep mud in the jungle, and accepting that the mere act of standing results in heavy sweating.
The Brits keep calling them "wellies"; in 'Merica, we call them "rubber boots". Either way, they get muddy in the jungle, as do the trousers.
Before I signed on for this trip, the Peru director (now my buddy, Rachel!) assured me my expired ability to speak Spanish would not be a problem. In hindsight, instead of pointlessly attempting the memorization of 1000+ fish species in the very lovely (and sadly unknown-outside-of Opwall) "Fishes of the Pacaya Samiria Reserve, Peru", my time would have been better spent brushing up on the ol' EspaƱol…
A toucan, just chillin' in the tree (Photo by Eric)
A sloth, just chillin' in the tree. We have much to learn from the sloths. (Photo by Steph)
Most of the students and staff here are from the UK or various European countries, but our Peruvian guides only speak as much English as I speak Spanish (Less, probably. Much, much less...). Beyond telling folks my name, what my father does for a living, and asking for a beer or a bathroom, my language skills from 20 years ago have proven quite useless. And since my field-acquired foreign language skills have historically involved fishing lingo, I often find myself spouting an incoherent mash-up of Swahili, Bemba, and Spanish. 

It does make for some highly entertaining conversations, though, and I’m constantly amazed how we eventually (accidentally) hit upon some form of understanding despite our communication barriers. And with the aid of some drawings, hand gestures, a few key nouns/infinities, and some luck, we dance around meaning and assume we're all talking about the same thing. No harm in that, really...
I drew this picture in my field book in an attempt to ask Samwell if the lake was connected to the river year round (it is, I think...)
I’d been told that mist netting for understory birds was not to be missed, so I spent yesterday afternoon out in the forest picking tiny birds out of mesh nets. It felt a whole lot like fishing, only for birds…in the air…  We pull down the nets, let them “fish” for 30 minutes, and then go collect birds/take measurements/band a subset for population estimates. I wish someone would have told me to bring a book…but the waiting part turned out not to be so bad. 
I have a feeling he wouldn't sit still except for the fact that his legs were pinned between fingers...
(Photo by Eric)
During one of those stretches of downtime, Jorge, our guide for the day, came and found me.

“Teacher,” he said. “Come.”
(I love that he calls me "teacher"; to the others I'm usually "Helen" or "Elena"; I answer to just about anything at this point.)
So I followed him into the forest, and he showed me a giant pile of tiny dead fish swarming with flies.
A giant pile of tiny dead fish swarming with flies.
Even with my limited vocabulary, I gathered these were the remnants of the receding flood waters. We are deep in the heart of the largest protected flooded forest in the Amazon, and the water level can vary as much as 12 meters between the high and low water periods.
Some evidence of the falling water (check that old water line...)
You read that too fast. I'm sure of it. That's almost FORTY FEET.

THAT'S LONGER THAN A SCHOOL BUS, PEOPLE. This river can fluctuate more than the length of ONE SCHOOL BUS every year. WHAT THE WHAT!!!!

This picture doesn't do it justice, but when the Rio first arrived at site, the water level was up to where that guy is standing. True story.
A few months ago, the solid ground we walked upon had been covered in water, and as the floods began to recede, little lakes formed in depressions. Those little lakes eventually dried up, and a whole lot of tiny fish got left behind. Crazy.
Left behind :(. Unfortunately I never got to see this one alive...when he still had eyeballs. 
The bird survey was...fine. I'm not the biggest fan, honestly, but it's a pretty rare opportunity to see all those understory birds up close (even if the birds themselves don't seem to love it). 

As for the speaking-of-Spanish, I’m getting by, for now, and getting better by the day.

[Note to self: get Rosetta Stone when you get home…]