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Sunday, 16 November 2008

Cataloging the Biodiversity of Reptiles and Amphibians in Western Ecuador

Written by Stephen J. Bugaj
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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!”

Cataloging the Biodiversity of Reptiles and Amphibians in Western Ecuador, Reptile and Amphibian Ecology International, RAEI, study herptiles, reptiles Ecuador, amphibian Ecuador, herps, Ecuador, Bosque La Protector La Perla, Pata de Pajaro, Cloud Forest, TRANSECT, Stephen J. BugajI 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.


We were briefed about our areas of operations, as well as some of the species that we might encounter during our field excursions, including fer-de-lance, coral snakes, and bushmasters. After hearing Paul elaborate on the many diseases that one might contract in the tropics (including Dengue Fever, Leishmaniasis and Chagas’ disease) I lost any residual fear I might have had about venomous snakes.

We learned that the Andes Mountains acted as an effective barrier for the migration of many animals across the country. I was very surprised to hear that more herp research had been completed in the Amazon basin than in western Ecuador. In fact, little is known about the herps in this part of the country, particularly reptiles. Much of the present taxonomic classification has been done using incomplete data, and there is relatively little information on population trends.

Paul told us that below 900 meters there is a high degree of biological endemism in Western Ecuador. So much so that specific flora and fauna may be limited to a single microhabitat of a certain life zone and could be found no where else in the world but on a hilltop in the Ecuadorian cloud forest. Destruction of a small patch of habitat may lead to the extinction of several range-limited species.

Bosque La Protector La Perla

After two days of instruction, we boarded a bus and traveled from Quito through the city of Santo Domingo to our first field site, Bosque La Protector La Perla, near the town of La Concordia, Ecuador. I had read somewhere that Quito to Santo Domingo is the most dangerous bus trip in the country. I quickly agreed with this statement. Our bus dropped about ten thousand feet on a crisscrossing road pelted by rain and covered with fog. I also observed that motorists on this highway tended to drive without regard for life or limb, and relied on their horns and headlights to warn vehicles that they were passing.

We arrived, white knuckled, at Bosque La Perla at approximately 1530 hours and went about establishing our lab and living quarters. La Perla is essentially a private reserve. Its proprietor, Lucia is a native-born Ecuadorian of American parentage, whose mother and father immigrated to Ecuador as colonists immediately after World War II. Though of a different generation, Lucia’s parents were very far-sighted; they cleared and planted considerable acreage for bananas (and later palm trees) but left much of it in its native jungle state. Paul categorized the area more appropriately as “subtropical humid forest.” Regardless of the term, we were happy to find that there still were stands of uncut balsa and mahogany on the property.


After a daylight reconnaissance, we began a series of forays at La Perla in what was known as the Area Intangible. Cataloging the Biodiversity of Reptiles and Amphibians in Western Ecuador, Reptile and Amphibian Ecology International, RAEI, study herptiles, reptiles Ecuador, amphibian Ecuador, herps, Ecuador, Bosque La Protector La Perla, Pata de Pajaro, Cloud Forest, TRANSECT, Stephen J. BugajOur guide, Placido, led us in and out of swamps, streams and canals under the cover of night. We dressed in comfortable clothing that covered all exposed skin and knee-high rubber boots known as ”gauchos.” We also hauled additional gear that included snake sticks/tongs, cameras, cloth and plastic bags, a GPS, and devices to perform the required measurements.


After first recording the temperature and humidity, we searched different substrates, such as the ground, bushes, trees and nearby water. Any herp that a team member discovered was first identified and photographed by Paul. Data was recorded on separate, water-resistant sheets of paper regarding the distance from observer, height and width of perch, distance from water, behaviors and microenvironment (for example, leaf litter). We also recorded the GPS location of the sighting. If Paul was unsure of the proper identification, we would capture it for further analysis and mark the location with a luminescent pink flag. As a general rule, we brought two or three species per night back to the lab.

During the daytime, we either consolidated our field notes and/or examined the previous night’s finds in greater detail. We also observed the length, weight, color of iris and number of scales on our species. This proved to be a major challenge at times; some of our captives were less than thrilled to be probed and prodded, and didn’t cooperate very well. Many of the smaller herps had distinguishing characteristics that were so hard to see that it was extremely difficult to make a proper identification. All of these herps were returned the very next evening at the precise location of their capture. There was only one that Paul preserved as a specimen for further research.

Our efforts at La Perla proved to be very fruitful. We recorded about 200 observations of herps including snakes (boa constrictor, king snakes, cat-eyed snakes and a very close relative of the venomous fer-de-lance known as Bothrops asper); lizards (Basiliscus galeritus; Anolis; Enyalioides); tree frogs (Hypsiboas picturata; Hypsiboas pellucens; Pristmantus achitinus; Trachycephalus jordanii; Eleutherodactylus longirostris; Epipedobates pentadactylus; and a member of the genus Centrolenidae. This amphibian was a “glass frog”, so named because its internal organs were visible on its underside); toads (Rhinella marinus); and one salamander (Genus- Bolitoglossa). This last discovery held particular interest for Paul; his field trips in Ecuador had only catalogued one other observation of a salamander to date. In fact, we learned that there are only six species of salamander in the entirety of South America. Regrettably, Placido told us that just before our arrival at La Perla, he had found an amphisbaenan – which looks like a cross between a snake and a lizard - that is rarely encountered in the field. We were truly sorry to have missed out on this.

Prior to our departure from Bosque La Perla, we had some very interesting experiences. We had recorded Bothrops asper on numerous occasions, but the snakes we encountered seemed to be as wary of us as we were of them. However, one night, while we were all up to our armpits in water, Paul spotted a four foot long Bothrops asper swimming toward him. Paul’s attempts at shooing away the snake had the opposite effect; it seemed to attract the snake to us. Our initial reserved demeanor transformed into frantic splashing and thrashing that finally had the desired effect. It was the first and only time I saw Paul flustered!

The very next day, one of the plantation workers brought us a small, furry creature that resembled a sloth. Placido told us that the colloquial name for it was “Flor de Balsa”. Interestingly, it only had one sharp claw on each foot and we were unable to locate any pictures or detailed information about it. Typical of sloths, it moved very slowly. However, if perturbed, it would rear itself backward, raise its claws overhead, and bring them down into its intruder. This happened to our very own Lucia while she was holding the creature. She experienced a burning, numbing feeling from her wrist to her neck that lasted for about twelve hours, which made us question whether there was some type of toxin or venom in the animal’s claws.


Cataloging the Biodiversity of Reptiles and Amphibians in Western Ecuador, Reptile and Amphibian Ecology International, RAEI, study herptiles, reptiles Ecuador, amphibian Ecuador, herps, Ecuador, Bosque La Protector La Perla, Pata de Pajaro, Cloud Forest, TRANSECT, Stephen J. BugajFinally, a friend of Lucia’s showed us a pair of shrunken heads that he received as a very young boy from his maternal grandmother. He said there were several tribes in Ecuador that engaged in the practice of headhunting many years ago. The heads were taken from enemies killed during intertribal warfare. In fact, as they were only taken from the ranks of those who demonstrated considerable bravery during battle, or who held positions of considerable authority, it was something of an honor to have your head taken, shrunken and displayed in some other tribe’s lodge. Lucia’s friend also told us that these items were in demand at the turn of the 20th century, and that he had been offered $3,000 apiece for each of these heads several years ago.

While we stayed at La Perla, we sampled Ecuadorian food and the local beer. The national brew, Pilsener, was only $1 for a sizeable bottle. Though it had a slight aftertaste, it definitely filled a void.


Pata de Pajaro and the Cloud Forest

Pata de Pajaro was our second field site, and was considered remote even by Paul. Our bus dropped us off along the road, where we met Carlos, Rafael, a horse and a burro. After packing our bags on the animals, we hiked several hours up a "moderate" slope to our base camp (affectionately dubbed the hacienda).The next morning, we packed the essentials to last five days, threw it on our backs, and began an ever increasingly steep climb into the cloud forest.

We arrived at our campsite late in the afternoon, soaked and exhausted. While Tim and I set up the tents, Brian and Rafael went down the mountain for water, and Paul and Carlos returned to the hacienda to lug the remaining gear and rations to our camp. The cardiovascular fitness of my companions truly amazed me! As an illustration, Brian and Rafael routinely stuffed five gallon plastic bags into their backpacks, hiked down to a small stream, filled them with water and hauled them uphill to our campsite. At 8 + pounds per gallon, and traveling vertically for most of the distance, this was no easy chore. Just getting up that slope pretty much kicked my butt!

Both La Perla and Pata de Pajaro are situated right along the Equator. Before our trip ended, we determined that we had walked across this parallel no fewer than a dozen times.

I discovered that my old Army summer weight battle-dress uniforms (BDUs) were a poor substitute for the high-tech nylon synthetics that everyone else wore. The BDUs never dried out in the continuously damp climate of the cloud forest. For the most part, we all kept our sleeves down and collars up to guard against insect bites. Our rubber gauchos served us well - they not only kept the water and mud out, but protected us from snakebites and offered considerable support for our ankles.

Our tents at our base camp were pitched in very wet conditions; likewise, so was our lab and cooking area. While we were in the cloud forest, everything became not only wet, but muddy. The mud sucked at our boots, stayed on our clothes and got into our tents. The only time we changed into dry (somewhat clean) clothes was after the evening field excursion. Trying to keep our morale up as the rain beat down, Brian began to chant in Zen-like fashion, "Embrace the mud!"

Walking uphill or over level terrain proved a major effort, but moving downhill was more challenging; we had to learn to surf the mud so that we wouldn't lose our balance and take a header into the mire. Had I not had the snake stick to maintain my balance I would have "embraced the mud" in very short order.


Our sanitary conditions were at an absolute minimum. We forgot entirely about showers - even cold showers. The water we had from our downhill stream was heavily chlorinated before we dared to drink it. Toilet facilities were typically at a minimum of 20 meters from the site. Urination did not pose a problem; however, I decided to pop two Imodium, "tighten-up" and not engage in this aspect of elimination until a later date. It wasn’t the snakes that concerned me – it was the myriad of tarantulas, scorpions, conga ants, leaf cutter ants, whip scorpions, harlequin beetles, and a host of fuzzy, and psychedelically-colored caterpillars that we were admonished not to touch. I kept envisioning myself dropping my drawers, squatting down and getting stung by a scorpion.

Carlos proved to be an outstanding cook. He consistently served up amazing concoctions of rice, fish, chicken, peppers, onions and beans - all liberally doused with an Ecuadorian variant of Tabasco sauce - which we engulfed ravenously! On one occasion, Carlos treated us to some “moonshine” – very raw rum colored with coca leaves – good for the digestion, and excellent for elevating our dampened spirits (no pun intended).

We were not as successful in Pata de Pajaro as we had been at La Perla. The temperature dropped into the lower 60’s after dark, which may have been the reason we saw little in the way of herpetofauna. However, on our third night out, we captured an amphibian that was rarely observed, even by Paul, and never before by Brian, Tim or me. Cataloging the Biodiversity of Reptiles and Amphibians in Western Ecuador, Reptile and Amphibian Ecology International, RAEI, study herptiles, reptiles Ecuador, amphibian Ecuador, herps, Ecuador, Bosque La Protector La Perla, Pata de Pajaro, Cloud Forest, TRANSECT, Stephen J. BugajThis was a caecilian, a worm-like legless creature of approximately two feet in length. This made up for our missing out on the amphisbaenan, and was the highlight of the entire trip for us.

On a very sad note, the day before we left Pata de Pajaro, we hiked out to the end of a mountain ridge where we had an unobstructed bird’s eye view of the deforestation in this part of the country. The cloud forest’s rapid rate of destruction is more than tragic – catastrophic might be a better adjective to describe what we saw. We took lots of pictures…

 

The remaining two days were anticlimactic. We hiked down the mountain, hitched a ride with a local farmer to Pedernales, and then took a bus to Punta de Prieta, a resort on the Pacific Ocean. While others swam and sunbathed, I lay in my bed and licked my wounds! We then rode back via bus to Quito, and after an overnight stay, we caught a flight back to the States.


All in all, it was an outstanding experience, and one I’ll never forget - not only for the friendships, excitement, and potential contribution to environmentalism, ecology, and herpetology – Paul’s final analysis of the data may prove to indicate the extended range of certain species, as well as something as yet to be identified – time will tell. Hopefully, our efforts may have an influence on the current powers that be in Ecuador to halt the wholesale destruction of its forests. Wish us (and more importantly, the people of Ecuador) luck!


© Stephen J. Bugaj

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012