Field Notes from July-August, 2008
It wasn’t quite 9:30 in the morning and I was already wringing wet with perspiration. As we trudged up the steep slope of the mountain, the mud made my footing both arduous and precarious. Moreover, my left insole had an industrial-grade bruise from hiking several days across rocks and hardened mud, and I had several blisters on both feet.
Before placing my one free hand on a nearby tree or limb to steady myself, I had to look very closely for snakes, scorpions, or needle-sharp thorns. We weren’t even halfway up the slope yet, and I kept praying that we would soon hit some level terrain (there is NO level terrain in this part of the world!). My head pounded, my joints ached and my lungs burned, and I kept thinking to myself over and over again, “I am way too old for this shit!”
I was one of three individuals who signed up to join Reptile and Amphibian Ecology International (RAEI) to study herptiles (reptiles and amphibians – or, “herps” for short) in Ecuador for July and August of 2008. Our aim was to catalog snakes, lizards, frogs and toads in two major areas of the western part of the country where only about 2 - 5% of the original habitat remains. Our larger goal was to help preserve those areas by recording their importance. Though we were going in as unpaid volunteers, we were anything but eco-tourists. In fact, I had already determined that this trip would be one of the most physically challenging events of my life.
What prompted me to apply for a position with RAEI was a lifelong interest in cold-blooded creatures, particularly turtles. I had recently retired as a School Superintendent in Pennsylvania, and was teaching special education courses at a nearby University. At 61 years old, it seemed like it was now or never for an adventure such as this.
Our leader, Paul Hamilton, had a doctorate in biology from Arizona State University and was also the CEO of Reptile and Amphibian Ecology International, an organization that explored the world of reptiles and amphibians in biodiversity “hotspots” – regions that have the highest concentration of biodiversity on earth and the most urgent need for conservation. Paul was also a first-rate herpetologist. Other team members included Brian Ravizza and Tim Christensen, both biologists knowledgeable in the area of herpetology.
The trip required a physician’s visit to discuss potential travel hazards in Ecuador, and we had to submit an application and three references. I was prescribed prophylaxis for malaria (Malarone), given shots for typhoid, rabies, hepatitis “B” and yellow fever, and some compound for traveler’s diarrhea.
We rendezvoused at the Hostel de Plaza Internationale, a hotel of modest means, in one of the newer parts of the city. After getting acquainted with one another, Paul introduced us to the concepts of the TRANSECT field methods system, as well as the forms that we had to complete for our work. Designed for studying reptiles and amphibians in the rain forest, TRANSECT is a set of methods and tools to record,and enter data on digital forms and analyze data for compiling species lists / diversity indices. We got most of our data from surveys conducted at night. Paul also outlined the major duties that each of us would fulfill in our respective roles – observer, recorder, and GPS operator.