CORVALLIS, Ore. – You know you’re in a pretty remote area when the only people who ever tried to survey it on foot all died of malaria. The rivers are filled with deadly electric eels and crocodile stew is a staple dinner dish. Never-before-discovered animal species are, well, all over the place.
Such was the trip to the Guyana Shield of a group of scientists from Oregon State University, the Smithsonian Institution, Conservation International, Guyana and others. They visited one of the world’s most remote, pristine and truly remarkable terrains in the northern jungles of South America.
Traveling there by overloaded small plane, canoe and foot through steaming rain forests was anything but easy. But the end result has been significant additions to both OSU’s Arthropod Collection and the Center for the Study of Biological Diversity in Georgetown, Guyana.
“This trip was a huge success,” said OSU entomologist Christopher Marshall, who oversees three million existing specimens in the university’s collection, which researchers hope to build into one of the best in the nation. “Once mounted and identified, a task that will take several years, many specimens will be sent back to colleagues and collections in Guyana to help build their museums. But many will be retained at OSU to strengthen our holdings as well.”
In the end, Marshall said, it’s believed the expedition will have discovered one or two new species of catfish, one or two new frogs, 5-6 new species of katydids, several new species of beetles, and maybe some new butterflies. They also documented several bird species and a sloth that were not known to inhabit that region.
“It’s always exciting to identify a new species, but there’s no automatic definition of how that’s done,” Marshall said. “Some scientists are turning towards using a certain percentage of difference in DNA, but there’s still skepticism about that approach. More traditionally we look at things like shape, body structure, male genitalia, ability to interbreed and other issues. That’s why it can take so long to identify everything from a trip like this.”
Since the existing OSU collection is about 70 percent species from the Pacific Northwest, the new specimens from a remote corner of the world will greatly improve its diversity. The Guyana Shield is still recognized as one of the Earth’s “hot spots” of biological diversity, the remains of an ancient mountain system that for millions of years has been cut off from most of the rest of the world, unaffected by rising or falling sea levels. It is still very sparsely populated. Traveling to and working in these remote habitats is expensive, and international collaborations help countries such as Guyana learn about and ultimately protect these unique locales.
For an entomologist, the motivation for going there was obvious. Half of Guyana’s plant species are found nowhere else in the world, perched on massive “tepuis,” or forest-covered rock plateaus that stand thousands of feet above the surrounding flood plains, and have been called the “Lost World.”
And the animal life is amazing, as well as terrifying. Rivers teem with piranhas, anacondas and 15-foot-long caiman, similar to a crocodile. Deadly bushmaster snakes grow so big they can resemble a small log. Tropical diseases such as leshmania – which several researchers on the trip contracted – can cause flesh to decay and organs like your nose to fall off, if not properly treated.
Working scientists on the field trip took some of their own provisions, which were supplemented by fare hunted by local Wai Wai tribesmen – fish, turtles, rodents, crocodile. A curious jaguar that may have never before seen humans was photographed near camp one night, and on a twilight hike Marshall bumped into a giant anteater with massive claws.
“I’ve been to many rain forests, but this was truly different,” Marshall said. “There was just this constant, pervasive realization that you were days away from any real type of help if anything went wrong, and since we were often alone by ourselves in the jungle, you paid pretty close attention to make sure something didn’t go wrong.”
The electric eels, Marshall said, worried him the most. They stood between him and the local bathtub.
“All the Wai Wais had stories about some relative they knew being killed by electric eels, which were about three feet long and six inches in diameter, very common in the rivers,” he said. “Jungle myth or not, those eels can easily shock you to death. But we needed a bath so badly we would bathe in the muddy rivers anyway.”
The success in obtaining new specimens was sufficient, Marshall said, that he hopes to return to Guyana. He’d love to bring additional entomologists and organize a short course on insects for Guyanese naturalists. Doing so would offer a type of “ecotourism” into remote areas not routinely available to the public, and simultaneously bring expertise to help Guyana learn more about their amazing insect diversity.
But for now, researchers working with the Arthropod Collection at OSU are like kids in a new candy store, with lots of fascinating new insects to study. With three millions specimens and growing, the collection is a scientific resource for experts in entomology, geology, forestry, and agriculture all over the world.