Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Deep Attachment to Place

Written 3 September 2011

I always anticipate the end of the inventory when all the teams come together to share their findings.  In this case, I had to wait two years.  The inventory had originally been planned for summer of 2009, and the social team was going ahead of the biological team.  As luck would have it, after we had been in the field for two and a half weeks, we postponed the inventory because of massive on-going protests by the indigenous people of the region against new laws the government had passed.  Indigenous peoples across the Amazon felt that the laws directly affected their control of resources in their titled lands.  The Awajún and Wampis peoples took a leadership role in the protests, and we felt that given their preoccupations and the regional turmoil, we should halt the inventory. 

Two years later, after more negotiations with local leaders, and bringing on the Instituto del Bien Común as a collaborator, we were able to resume the inventory, and successfully complete it.  From the social team’s perspective, this has been the most complicated inventory of our 24 rapid inventories to date.  The Awajún and Wampis are different from other Amazonian societies we have worked with in the past.  Their reputation as warrior peoples is long-standing. Having successfully fended off the Incas, over the centuries they also resisted successive attempts by the Spanish Crown who came in search of gold and other treasures. The Spaniards, witnessing their ferocity, called them (and others of the same linguistic family spread out across Ecuador and this section of Peru) the “Jivaros”--- the Savages or Barbarians.  But their own name for themselves was “aents”—the people of this place. 

Field Museum scientist Tita Alvira in Papayacu talking about
mammals with a local Wampis woman
Photo: R. Tsamarain
Indeed, their willingness to put their lives on the line derives in part from their deep attachment to this landscape whose breathtaking geology and natural history we are just now beginning to understand through the inventory.  For the Awajún and Wampis, mountains are not mere mountains but realms of spiritual beings and home to sacred waterfalls. For them, animals of the forest are not other species—separate from humans, but rather act just as humans do, creating social relationships.  In Awajún myths, recounted to team member, Filip Rogalski, the animals can become humans.  In one such myth, a man who has over-hunted the tapirs encounters a strange looking man in the forest, who takes him to see his yucca garden, and his house.  Finally he reveals that he is in reality a tapir and he pleads with the hunter not to kill his kind, but to greet them as his uncles and aunts.  This myth resonated for me when Debby Moskovits told me that on the last day of the inventory, she was walking the trail and encountered several tapirs—they stopped, seemed to be looking around, smelling and then ambled on.  Surely, they recognized a sister in her.

Another myth is about the "mono blanco", Cebus albifrons or the White-fronted
Capuchin monkey. The Awajún and Wampis believe this monkey can talk to
supernatural beings, kind of like an intermediary between the spirit world and them.
Photo: T. Alvira
This deep attachment to place found in the myths and stories was also reflected in other aspects of daily life that we investigated during the inventory.  We found that both men and women travel frequently, for example, across the mountains and forests, and up and down the rivers, to visit kin and friends in other villages.  We discovered that social relations criss-cross the region, from the Santiago to the Morona and Marañón Rivers.  

Woman singing traditional Awajun songs known as anen.
Photo: M. Pariona

Although community members rely most on word-of-mouth to share information, they also have incorporated new technologies such as short wave radio and public telephones when they are available.  Efficient communication is a key factor in how people organize across large distances.  However, given that verbal forms dominate, we found that there is a lot of “miscommunication”, gossip, and rumor that is part of the information stream. 

Carmen Pirucho, female leader of local indigenous
federation, and master artisan.
Photo: T. Alvira

 When we all got together at inventory’s end, August 2011, in Tarapoto,  I finally got to hear what everyone else found, and as at other such moments in other inventories, I was left deeply moved at the awesome character of this landscape.  To hear a region characterized in this way is really mind-expanding.  It gives you in encapsulated form (every team only has five minutes) the almost incomprehensible power of nature--the processes that have shaped the Amazon over the millennia.  We start with the geology—the birth of mountains, the flow of the rivers and the characteristics of the soil.

Gustavo Tsamarain, one of the six local scientists on the rapid inventory.
Photo: K. Swierck

We learned about the diversity of plants, reptiles, fish and mammals—new records for Peru and some species new to science. What stands out is the robust health of the forest and rivers and their inhabitants.  This despite the fact that team geologist Bob Stallard had also researched oil company documents and maps and uncovered the extent of their past seismic explorations. But we understand that the habitat is fragile and further intensive extractive activity is a major concern for conservationists and local people alike.

Children in Papayacu community spellbound by a map of
important historical and cultural sites for the Wampis and Awajun.
Photo: A. Treneman
When all of this is considered together, we can make really strong recommendations for ensuring that the landscape that our indigenous collaborators care so deeply about will be safeguarded far into the future.   

Post by Alaka Wali, Conservation Anthropologist

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The View from the Top

Written 27 August 2011


This film clip was recorded as we approached the highest point on the trail system at our first campsite: the edge of a towering limestone cliff that looks across the Santiago River valley to the Cordillera del Cóndor in the distance.

The first two thirds of the video are what we see for several hours each day in the field. As is so often the case in the inventory, a little patience during the walk is repaid many times over by the prize at the end.

video

Post by Nigel Pitman, Conservation Botanist

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Cold Front Sweeps Across Peru

Written on 24 August 2011
I’m writing from Tarapoto, a city in central Peru. I’m here with a geologist, two anthropologists, and two geographers. We are supposed to be working with the inventory team as they come out of the field, and pulling together the recommendations for the conservation and management of this region. Instead we’ve been waiting anxiously for them for three days.

The team is stuck in Puerto Galilea, an indigenous community on the Santiago River.  A friaje, or cold front, swept through the country three days ago, producing big clouds that are now hanging over northern Peru. These clouds are low enough, and immobile enough, that they have grounded the helicopter.

Two of us were supposed to be there with the team. Dick Smith, an anthropologist from the Instituto del Bien Común (www.ibcperu.org), and I got into a small plane on Sunday afternoon. Our flight was already terrifically delayed, but we thought we could fly from Tarapoto to Puerto Galilea, and we thought we could avoid the storm system.  We were wrong on both counts. 

Leaving Tarapoto and heading towards the mountains.
Photo: C. Vriesendorp

We traveled with SAETA, one of the few companies that flies small planes into the Santiago drainage. Joining us on the flight were Mamerto Maicua and Luis Piyaba of CORPI (Coordinadora Regional de Pueblos Indígenas Región San Lorenzo), one of the two regional indigenous organizations near the Kampankis mountains. We left Tarapoto with decent visibility and crossed over the Cordillera Escalera.

We flew over the spectacular Cordillera Escelera, a place just
begging to be explored. Perhaps a future rapid inventory.
Photo: C. Vriesendorp


Soon we were deep in the clouds. After about twenty minutes the rain started. All four us hoped that we would soon break free from the storm, and were expecting that any minute we’d emerge on the other side of the rain and the clouds. Instead, the rain intensified. The turbulence got worse. And after some seemingly eternal moments, we turned around. 


Mamerto Maicua looks out the window with apprehension.
Photo: C. Vriesendorp



All of us were grateful to be back on the ground, and we spent the night in Yurimaguas, a sweet little town on the Huallaga River. The following day, Mamerto left for San Lorenzo, on the Maráñon River. Luis stayed in Yurimaguas. And Dick and I rode two hours back to Tarapoto. We crossed over the Cordillera Escalera again, this time in a car following a seemingly never-ending series of curves. The taxis pride themselves on speed. We prided ourselves on not getting sick during the trip. 

Crossing the Cordillera Escalera, this time by car.
Photo: C. Vriesendorp

And now we’ve been in Tarapoto for two days. We are stuck in a loop: get up, check weather maps, call Debby and Tyana in Puerto Galilea, get hopes up, squint up at the sky and convince ourselves the clouds are moving, call Puerto Galilea again, and after a few more iterations, realize dejectedly that the helicopter cannot fly today and resign ourselves to one more day of the same process.


In the meanwhile, the inventory team has been incredibly productive during their unexpectedly long layover in Puerto Galilea. They met with the Awajún and Wampis to share their findings. They engaged everyone in the community in a discussion of their vision for the area in the long term. And together with the community, they spent hours thinking through the threats to the region, the strengths of the local people, and how to best use the strengths to address the threats. 

Here in Tarapoto, we are anxious to see the scientists, hear their stories, and move forward on writing the report. Spurred on by the team’s reports about their productive meetings with the community, we’ve made a series of new maps of the region’s geology. As we think about the Huancabamba deflection, the rise of the Andes, and the large paleolake known as Lago Pevas that is now the upper Amazon basin, we are—for a moment at least—pleasantly distracted. 

Then we look out the window and think that perhaps, just perhaps, today will be the day the clouds clear and the team flies over the mountains to us. For now, we wait. 

Update: The team has landed safely in Tarapoto (during an earthquake). 
After three days of waiting in Puerto Galilea, the team finally reaches Tarapoto.
An earthquake struck as they were landing, and people ran out of the airport into
the streets for safety. The team figured people were just really excited to see them.
Photo: A. del Campo
Post by Corine Vriesendorp, Conservation Ecologist


Friday, August 26, 2011

Birds: It's Almost All New

Written 20 August 2011

Three days before departing to this, my first inventory, Doug Stotz took me through the bird collection at the Field Museum to show me some of the species of special interest likely to occur in the Cerros Kampankis, an ornithologically unexplored region in northern Peru.

Doug opened one of the drawers with a series of antbird specimens.  He pointed out subtle differences among closely-related, hard-to-identify species and moved to another drawer.  “We expect to find this hummingbird,” he told me, pointing out a specimen almost identical to the rest.  “Also, this antpitta”… “this flycatcher”… “this hawk,” and continued showing me other species while I took notes as fast as possible.

Most of the species he pointed out that day are new for me.  The portion of the Neotropics that I have visited frequently, from southern Mexico to Panama, shares many of the families and genera that we would find in northern Peru, although South America has the world’s most diverse avifauna and each of these groups contains many more different species than the ones I am used to.

Facing such a complicated task, I opted for preparing for this trip as well as I could: I read as much of the field guide to the Birds of Peru (of which Doug is a coauthor) as possible, studying each illustration and distribution map.  I looked at the species lists of the most recent Rapid Inventory to have a clear idea of the number of birds registered at last year’s site and to get a sense of what was expected of my work in the field.  I pulled all the music off my iPod and replaced it with the content of several CDs with bird songs of the Amazonian and Andean regions of Peru.  For days I didn’t listen to anything but bird songs, including the cow-cow-cow of the familiar Collared Trogon and also learned for the first time the choo-choo-chuchuchu of the White-flanked Antwren and the cher-cher-chrrr, chrr of the Yellow-tufted Woodpecker that I never heard before.

And my first day in the field came.  The bird team is composed of Renzo Zeppilli,  Debby Moskovits, and me.  Both of them have lots of experience identifying Peruvian birds and they readily identify them left and right as we hear them in the forest.  “That is a Black-faced Antbird”… “That one is a Paradise Tanager”… “Oh, Plumbeous Pigeon, out there, in the distance.”  That morning each of them picked a different trail.  I picked my own and left camp with my backpack containing my digital sound recorder, my camera, and my field guide.  In my left pocket, my iPod with a small speaker.  In my right, my field notebook.  Hanging from my neck my binoculars.

Field Museum conservation ecologist Ernesto Ruelas reviewing recordings at 
Quebrada Katerpiza.  Rubber boots in European size 46 are hard to find in Tarapoto, 
and Smurf-colored ones may be your only choice.  
Photo: A. del Campo.

Ssscoooeee-cooeo!  I heard nearby, by the stream.  Loud, clear.  It sounded like “my” piha, the one I can find in the forests of southern Mexico.  I reached for my iPod and looked for a piha, I played the track, and immediately identified that bird that I could not see, but whose call is unmistakable.  A new species for me, one that has the (very appropriate) scientific name of Lipaugus vociferans.  I followed the trail, tzk-tzk-tzk, then cooe-cooe-cooe, etc.  I look at my iPod and found some of them easily identifiable, while some others were not.  I made recordings of those worthwhile documenting and of those that I didn’t know.  Within a few days I learned more and more vocalizations and made some mental calculations of how many I was able to actually see and how many I could only identify through their vocalizations.  Was it 80% by voice and 20% by sight?


Straight-billed Hermit photographed asleep.  Hummingbirds drop metabolic 
rates at night to save energy and stay warm positioning their feathers in a position 
perpendicular to their skin that allows them to immobilize air.  Approaching them at 
night to take a photograph becomes an easy task due to their state of torpor -- 
but finding them is not.
Photo: A. del Campo


Three camps afterwards (with many vocalizations identified positively and many others left unidentified), I feel familiar with the most common of what can be found at low elevations, approximately 1,000 feet.  Each member of the bird team has covered between 3-6 miles of trails per day recording birds.  We climbed three hilltops to elevations over 3,000 feet (two of them above 4,200 feet!) that brought us records of mountain species and additional findings for our inventory, including the Andean Cock-of-the-rock, considered by many the national bird of Peru.

 Every night we sat down together to review what each of us had found, shared the details of notable records, and compiled our data in a central list.  Days have gone by really fast.  My arms are covered in mosquito and bug bites and my feet almost used to wearing rubber boots.

Orange-throated Tanager, a coveted species for birdwatchers, rare record for 
ornithologists, andbird of cultural significance for the Wampis indigenous 
group, was recorded in two of our campson both slopes of the Cerros 
de Kampankis.
Photo: A. del Campo

Today we are in the last locality that we will visit, Camp 4, and our list has nearly 340 species.  I took a shorter than normal walk, since we need to start working on our reports and synthesizing information from the entire trip.  While I was reviewing the list, I confirmed many of the species expected for Kampankis and also tallied the many unexpected surprises.  Of the species of special interest, we found the hummingbird, the antpitta, and the flycatcher that Doug showed me a little over three weeks ago in Chicago; in my mind, I have fixed the voices of many, including the choo-choo-chuchuchu, tzk-tzk-tzk, and also the very interesting cow-cowcow, one of my favorite forest-falcons.


Peruvian ornithologist Renzo Zeppilli discusses the cultural significance of the bird 
inchituch (Wampis for Orange-throated Tanager) with local scientists at Camp 4 
in Quebrada Wee. 
Photo: Á. del Campo.

 Post by Ernesto Ruelas, Conservation Ornithologist

Saturday, August 20, 2011

This Is What It Sounds Like

Written 14 August 2011
Spend a day with us in Kampankis and here are some things you’re likely to hear:
The nighttime honking of the Trachycephalus tree frogs, which have been common around the first three of our campsites. For a long time they all sit quietly, and all you hear are the crickets and the river. Then one of them honks like a miniature duck, and another joins in, and another, until pretty soon there’s a whole flock of miniature ducks honking in the trees around camp. After a minute or so they feel they’ve had their say and fall silent again.

 The nighttime plucking of the camp guitar, which survived having a heavy sack of plantains thrown on top of it during the last helicopter transfer.

 On the steep trails, the friendly Wampis question “¿Te apoyo?” – which means “Can I help you with that?”

The friendly clinking of the aluminum poles that the botanists carry in the woods to reach specimens up in the midstory. Sometimes when I get separated from the others I stand still until somewhere off the woods I hear the clink saying: “Here we are!”

Heavy rain coming your way when it’s still a few minutes off and sounds like an advancing ocean.

The beep-beep-click of Alessandro’s camera as he and Pablo photograph the new lizard species over at the herp table – then Alessandro saying “Gaah!” when the lizard jumps off the table and tries to hide in the leaf litter again.

Alvaro yelling at Tyana over the radio, punctually every day at 7 AM and 7 PM. Tyana is handling logistics from the community of La Poza on the Santiago River, which is between 20 and 100 kilometers from our campsites. Reception on both sides is iffy, so the yelling is both an aid to communication and a symptom of frustration. Calls go like this:

Tyana: Alvaro, let me know if you want me to send more rice with the next helicopter.
Alvaro: Tyana, that would be perfect, thanks a lot, we’re a little low.
Tyana: Sorry, I didn’t catch that, can you repeat?
Alvaro: SÍÍÍÍÍÍÍ!
Tyana: Alvaro, did you copy about the rice?
Alvaro: SÍÍÍÍÍÍÍÍÍÍÍÍÍÍ!
Tyana: Alvaro, I’m sorry. I’m not copying you very well.
Alvaro: SÍÍÍÍÍÍÍÍÍÍÍÍÍÍÍÍÍÍÍÍÍ!
Some joker at the breakfast table: Alvaro, are you like this in the morning at home too?
Alvaro (grumbling): Tyana, Tyana, did you copy?
Tyana: Alvaro, Alvaro, did you copy?

The sound of the enclosed world you hear when the hood of your poncho is up and the rain is thrumming on it and you can see but you can’t hear the splashing of your boots through the puddles.
Whistling in the forest, whistling around camp. There’s the “Where’d you go?” whistle, the “I’m over here” whistle, the “I’m happy botanizing and I’ve composed this melodious little tune for the occasion” whistle, the “I’m supposed to be thinking about trees but I’ve got that Amy Winehouse line about Tanqueray stuck in my head” whistle, and the “I’ve been carrying a pack through heavy mud for a couple of hours but I want everyone to know it’s no big deal for me” whistle….
At night, the zipping-up of zippers, the rustling of nylon tents. Last night we laid out our sleeping bags on a bed of palm leaves under a plastic sheet. The ground there sloped a little, and in the night I kept waking up and wondering how far downhill I’d slid in my sleep. Then I’d hear the rustling of David’s sleeping bag to my left, or the rustling of Isau’s to my right, and I’d fall back asleep thinking that things couldn’t be too bad because the three of us were all in the same place.
The unbearable roar of the helicopter. Even with earplugs it finds a way in and makes your head throb. Once it’s left and the chopping fades into the distance you have to sit still for a few minutes, doing nothing at all, until you’ve regained your independence and can go about life again. (On the days we transfer from one camp to another, the Wampis guides always hear the helicopter approaching half a minute before the rest of the team, probably because they haven’t spent their lives listening to headphones and going to rock concerts and commuting through city traffic….)
The word increíble, repeatedly, at mealtime.
The tak-tak of Vladimir swinging the pick of his rock hammer at something from the Jurassic.
The shouting from one bank of the river to the other, when the current is swollen and the only bridge has washed away and the rushing whitecaps make communication impossible. Then you tap your wristwatch and shrug and hope the people on the other side of the river understand you mean that the only solution is to wait until the water goes down, because no one’s crazy enough to cross that.
Renzo back in camp, playing back a birdsong he’s recorded for Ernesto and Debby. One by one they hold the little recorder to their ears and assume a thoughtful expression.
The ping! ping! of a machete.
An argument about Chrysochlamys fruits among the painfully soft-spoken botany team.
The gallows humor of field biologists. Renzo says: “I have two pairs of pants. There’s the pair that’s wet, and there’s the pair I’m wearing. Which is wet.”
That funny grunting sound that hummingbirds make as their wings beat the air for a sudden change of direction. For a split second you think: “Peccary? Oh – hummingbird.”
The faint reminder of jetliners passing over so high that we have yet to see one. When I hear them I like to imagine a little girl looking out her window at the Kampankis range and saying “Cool…” – and then I remember that she’s probably saying “Cool” because she’s too busy with Angry Birds to look out the window and she just cleared that level with the treehouse and the boomeranging pelicans. (Or whatever they are. I just asked the ornithologists what kind of birds those are, and they said “Angry Birds? What’s that?”)
The almost audible crispening of the leaf litter and hiss of water evaporating on days when the sun comes out in full force after a rainstorm and the heliport is littered with a hundred pieces of drying field clothes.
The river next to camp, which sings all night: “I’m going to Brazil, I’m going to Brazil….”
Post by Nigel Pitman, Conservation Botanist


Friday, August 19, 2011

Rock Walls and Torrential Downpours

Written 14 August 2011
For the botanists on this expedition, the ridgetops and highest elevations are often the most interesting places to survey for plants, where the species are mostly different from those in the surrounding lowlands and we are most likely to find new species.  While our main objective is to characterize the vegetation of the Kampankis cordillera, I have a special interest in searching for plants that we have documented during the past 10 years from the sandstone plateaus in the Cordillera del Condor region of southeastern Ecuador and adjacent northern Peru. 
With these goals in mind, the four botanists, together with our local Wampis guide Ignacio Jempekit, set out for an overnight trip to the highest point of the trail network of our third camp.  This ridge at 1050 m elevation is lower than the high point of our second camp, 1360 m, where we found several plants that we believe are new to science and several species characteristic of the sandstone plateaus of the Cordillera del Condor.   We reached the end of the trail, 5.7 km from the main camp, by mid-day, but we were stymied by a solid rock wall 20 m tall that at first seemed impassable.  We eventually found a way up via a series of small ledges.  Although the rubber boots we use for jungle fieldwork are not ideal footgear for rock climbing, we managed to reach to nearly level ridge about the rock wall and make our bivouac camp.  We set out to explore the forest, which was clothed with a dense load of epiphytes, including much “Spanish moss”, Tillandsia usneoides and numerous orchids, bromeliads and ferns.
Botanist Isau Huamantupa at the base of the rock wall.
Photo: D. Neill
At the edge of the cliff we could see the broad Santiago River below, 20 km distant.  Numerous small trees and shrubs were in flower at the cliff edge, including several in the coffee family, Rubiaceae, and among these was a new species that we have previously found on the crystalline sandstone plateaus of the Cordillera del Condor, and is being published as Schizocalyx condoricus by Charlotte Taylor of the Missouri Botanical Garden.  We did not find, however, a great variety of the Cordillera del Condor plants that we had hoped to find.   The rocks of this part of the Cordillera Kampankis, according to the expedition’s geologist, Vladimir Zapata, are sandstone but contain some carbonate and organic matter, and are different from the crystalline sandstone of nearly pure quartzsite that are characteristic of the Cordillera del Condor and give rise to soils that are extremely low in nutrients and highly acidic.  The Cordillera del Condor flora that is adapted to these extremely unfavorable soil conditions, it appears, does not occur where the soils are somewhat richer and less acidic.
On our ridgetop botanical foray we did find two orchids that may be new species, a terrestrial Epistephium and an epiphytic Peristeria, documented by the collections and Isau Huamantupa’s photographs. 
Botanist Camilo Kajekai and guide Ignacio Jempekit waiting to cross the swollen river next to camp
Photo: D. Neill
As we started downhill to the main camp, we met the ornithologists on their way up to record the birds on the summit ridge.  In the late morning as we tramped down the mountain, a light drizzle quickly became a torrential downpour that lasted for two hours. When we arrived at the main camp shortly after noon, the small creek near camp had become a raging torrent of roiling brown waters and the log bridge that had been built across the stream had been washed out.  We could not reach camp across the swollen waters, but shouted to our colleagues on the other side.   There was nothing to do but wait until the flood receded enough for us to cross safely.  Eventually, a rope was thrown across the stream and secured to trees on either side, and after a wait of two more hours, we were able to cross using the safety rope and braving the now-reduced waters that still reached to our waists.  Soon the sun came out, and by evening the stream was back to its clear-running normal condition.
Post by David Neill, Conservation Botanist

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Big News from the Ridgetop

Written on 12 August 2011
We knew that something was going on with the herpetologists when the sun set on Wednesday and they still hadn’t gotten back to base camp. Pablo and Alessandro had started up the long, steep trail to the ridgetop at camp two on Tuesday afternoon, carrying their snake hooks and headlamps, with the plan of spending that night collecting and coming back down the next day. When they failed to show up, our first instinct was to worry. It was Lucía, who had overlapped with them up on the peak, who explained what had happened. 

“They didn’t come down because they’ve gone totally bananas,” she said. “They don’t ever want to come down – they say they’re finding incredible stuff up there….”
We had to wait 24 hours to find out how incredible that stuff really was. You have to wait one paragraph.
Herpetologist Pablo Venegas surveying reptile and amphibian communities on the high ridge above camp two.
Photo: A. del Campo

Alessandro Catenazzi and Pablo Venegas are part of a new generation of Peruvian herpetologists who’ve crisscrossed their country surveying amphibian and reptile communities, which are among the most diverse in the world – and vast stretches of which, like Kampankis, have never before been visited by biologists. Alessandro is a research associate at San Francisco State University and a lecturer at Gonzaga University – he’s squeezing this inventory between the summer and fall trimesters – and he’s working on the chytrid fungal infection that’s decimating amphibian communities in Peru and around the world. Pablo is a researcher at the Center for Ornithology and Biodiversity in Lima (www.corbidi.org), and is an expert on snakes and lizards – famous in our group for a photograph from a previous inventory that shows him holding by the tail a bushmaster longer than he is tall. Both Pablo and Alessandro have been on two or three earlier inventories, and in the field they’re all business. This morning the people camped out next to Alessandro were complaining because he finished his day at three in the morning to hike out and retrieve the automated frog song recorders from the trail system. You’ll recall that Alessandro is on vacation….
Los herpetólogos finally got back down to camp on Thursday afternoon – our last day at camp two. What had kept them so busy up on the ridge were 16 amphibians and four reptiles. Those numbers are not especially impressive for a two-day survey of an Amazonian site, until you take a look at the fine print. Of those 20 species, Pablo and Alessandro think that as many as 13 may be new to science, new to Peru, or significant extensions from their previous known ranges in Peru – and that’s two thirds of the ridge’s herpetofauna.
A snake in the genus Tropidophis, collected on the ridgetop above camp two.
Photo: A. Catenazzi

The reptilian novelties include a small yellow and black boa in a very rarely collected genus; the lizard Enyalioides rubrigularis, previously known only from southern Ecuador; and a fountain pen-sized lizard with a startling white throat and a tail that wraps around anything within reach, which the herpetologists say is like nothing they’ve ever seen. Turning up just one of these finds in an inventory would make any herpetologist’s day. Turning up three in the space of a few hours makes even a seasoned herpetologist’s head spin – and we haven’t even gotten to the amphibians yet.
The lizard Enyalioides rubrigularis, a new record for Peru.
Photo: A. del Campo

This apparently undescribed lizard was collected on the ridgetop at camp two.
Photo: A. Catenazzi

The amphibian news includes three apparently new species of Pristimantis, a genus of frogs whose juveniles skip the tadpole stage, emerging instead as tiny immature frogs from eggs that are cared for by their parents in the leaf litter; another frog species that’s never been seen before in Peru (possibly two of those); and three frog species that have never been seen before in this region of Peru.
And it just kept getting better – because what they were most excited about of all was something I haven’t even mentioned yet. Just below the ridgetop ran a stream that you could cross in one jump, and at night they found that stream dripping with glass frogs. They told me that there were so many glass frogs singing along the banks of that stream that after a while they gave up counting them, because the number showed no sign of tailing off. Glass frogs, or centrolenids, are the ones whose skin is typically so transparent that you can see right through to their internal organs. They’re one of the groups of frogs that are most sensitive to direct human impacts like deforestation, but they have also been vanishing from apparently pristine montane streams across the Neotropics due to the chytrid fungus. In recent years centrolenids have been disappearing so fast in the tropics that you hear herpetologists who are just out of college reminiscing about them like old men – telling stories about streams they know that used to be full of glass frogs but that are silent today.
This unidentified glassfrog was extremely common along the ridgetop above camp two
Photo: A. Catenazzi

On the day they got back from the ridge, both Pablo and Alessandro said the same thing about the glass frogs up there: “I’ve never seen so many of them in the same place before….” All the glass frogs they saw belonged to the same species, and the population was so dense that they’d sometimes find half a dozen frogs on a single shrub in the understory. That suggests that the things that are hammering amphibians in the rest of the world have yet to reach the isolated populations in the Kampankis.
The herpetologists could spend the rest of the trip kicked back and doing crossword puzzles in their tents, and they’d still have had a historic inventory – and have shown how special the Kampankis herpetofauna is. Every night after dinner, though, they suit up with backpacks and headlamps and snake hooks and slog off to work on the night shift, until midnight or one in the morning. As they’re leaving someone back at camp hums the song and someone else calls after them: “Frogbusters!!”


An aerial view of camp two and the ridgetop above it.
Photo: A. Catenazzi
 Post by Nigel Pitman, Conservation Botanist