Pascal Rochette's Diary
|Monday, March 31, 2008
||Tuesday, May 6, 2008|
|Wednesday, May 7, 2008
||Friday, July 4, 2008|
|Friday, July 11, 2008
||Thursday, July 17, 2008|
|Friday, July 18, 2008
||Saturday, July 19, 2008|
|Sunday, July 20, 2008
||Monday, July 21, 2008|
|Tuesday, July 22, 2008
||Wednesday, July 23, 2008|
|Thursday, July 24, 2008
||Friday, July 25, 2008|
|Saturday, July 26, 2008
||Sunday, July 27, 2008|
Monday, March 31, 2008
Welcome to my Earthwatch expedition diary, a travel through my thoughts and my learning experiences.
My name is Pascal Rochette. I’m 32 years old, and I’ve been working for Alcoa for six years in a smelter located in Deschambault, one of the prettiest villages along the St-Laurence River in the French province of Quebec, Canada. I was hired as a process engineer for the carbon plant and the pot relining department, and now I’m an Alcoa Business System (ABS) administrator for the whole plant.
In my spare time, I love to practice sports and travel. I really enjoy cycling (mountain bike and road) during the summer and cross-country skiing during the winter. In past years, I backpacked or cycled in Peru, Vietnam, Austria, and Hungary to get a taste of those wonderful cultures and landscapes.
It was a Friday afternoon, and it was time for me to catch up with emails and make sure that I had answered all the special inquiries of the week. I was concentrating on my job when a pop-up appeared on my screen with the title: Award for Pascal Rochette. What did I win?
I had almost forgotten that I had applied for the Earthwatch fellowship, like the five previous years. To be honest, I was not expecting to be selected because two other people from my plant had already been chosen the two previous years. Deep inside, I knew I was a good candidate for this kind of program, but my rational side was telling me the odds were against me. Good for me that I was wrong! When I opened the email and read the first word “Congratulations!” I couldn’t believe it! I was so excited. Wow. This year it’s my turn, and I’ll do my best to meet the expectations.
I was selected amongst 240 entries to participate in this year’s Earthwatch fellowship program. I’ll be going to study caterpillars in the Andes in Ecuador. What a chance for a mountain lover like me. Plus, I’ll be able to improve my Spanish skills.
They posted the information in our weekly plant newspaper, and I received many emails saying congratulations and showing interest from my coworkers about this program. Since then, every week somebody is stopping me to ask for more information about the expedition and the research I’ll be participating in.
Tuesday, May 6, 2008
The program: Change the world. Yourself.
It’s now summer vacation planning time, and many people share their projects for those months. When I tell my friends, colleagues, and family that I’m going in Ecuador to study caterpillars, the reactions go from surprise to misunderstanding. And when I add that the trip is offered by Alcoa, the surprise is even greater. “You’re not working for an aluminum company? What’s the relationship between caterpillars and aluminum production? A new species of caterpillar was found that produces aluminum silk?”
Then I explain that Earthwatch is the world’s largest environmental volunteer nonprofit organization, founded in 1971. Its goal: help the world realize its goal of a sustainable environment by funding scientific field research and enabling regular people to volunteer on projects around the world. Currently, Earthwatch is funding 120 field sites in more than 40 countries, and I’m really proud to say that Alcoa, as a corporate partner, is participating this year in seven of them by sending 15 of its employees.
By doing so, Alcoa is publicly endorsing the idea that objective science should be the basis for understanding and managing the environment. By giving employees the opportunity to participate in field research related to environmental issues and share this experience with friends, family, and colleagues, Alcoa believes the participants’ awareness will grow greater and we’ll have leadership impact in our communities to get things done. I could say that just by telling people I’m participating in the program, the goal is partly achieve. It provokes very positive comments about our company and creates interest about my experience.
Wednesday, May 7, 2008
The research: Hunting for caterpillars
This multi-site caterpillar project was started 12 years ago by the principal investigator, Dr. Lee Dyer, and his collaborator, Dr. Grant Gentry—both from Tulane University. The main purpose of the project is to understand the interactions between plants, caterpillars, and parasitoids in forests from Brazil to Canada.
Parasitoids, including different species of wasps and flies, are natural enemies that kill caterpillars by depositing their eggs on them. Their interaction with caterpillars is an important area of study for both agriculture and basic ecology. Comparisons between the different sites (Ecuador, Costa Rica, Arizona, and Louisiana) will allow the project to test hypotheses about the effects of important climatic factors (rising temperatures, rainfall, drought, etc.) on this interaction.
The five primary goals associated with the research on caterpillars defenses are:
- Document diversity of caterpillars and parasitoids in three species-rich ecosystems;
- Understand how different caterpillars’ defenses function against different types of natural enemies;
- Examine chemical defenses in caterpillars and their host plants;
- Construct models that predict success of biological control based on caterpillar defenses; and
- Examine the effects of climate on caterpillar-parasitoids interactions.
So far, project participants have compiled natural history data related to approximately 1,000 combined species of caterpillars, plants, and parasitoids. In addition, they have given talks in Costa Rica and Ecuador to educate the local workers, students, and naturalists to increase their awareness and respect toward the diversity of the caterpillars around them.
Did you know?
- In many of the Earth’s forests, caterpillars eat more leaves than all other herbivores combined.
- It is not known how many species of butterflies, moths, and associated caterpillars exist, but estimates go up to 3.5 million that await discovery.
- Parasitoids could be used effectively in biological control programs in banana plantations and alfalfa fields.
- The process of identification, description, and documentation of new species of caterpillars or parasitoids requires up to five years.
Friday, July 4, 2008
Ecuador: The country
Ecuador has the same name as the famous line separating the world in two hemispheres at the latitude of 0°. The first presence of humans has been recorded as 6,000 years ago, and many different cultures succeeded until the Inca empire in the 15th century. This empire was defeated by Pizarro, the Spanish conquistador, in 1532.
Quito is the second highest capital in the world after La Paz in Bolivia and was named after one of the important tribes that ruled around 800 AD—the Quitus.
Here are few facts about this country:
- 13.3 million inhabitants;
- Highest population density of South America (49 people per square kilometer);
- 25% of the population is indigenous;
- Soccer (football), of course, is the national sport;
- Banana exports equal 4.5 million tons per year;
- There have been nine presidents in the last 10 years;
- Since 2000, the currency has been the U.S. dollar; and
- It is the size of the United Kingdom or the U.S. state of Nevada.
Ecuador is also well recognized for the mega-diversity of its fauna and flora. The Galapagos Islands (a national park since1959) are probably the best example and the basis of Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Here are other facts about the mega-diversity:
- 1,500 species of birds (twice the number found in North America, Europe, and Australia);
- 100 species of bats;
- 4,500 species of butterflies; and
- 300 species of mammals.
The islands are not the only interesting feature of the country. Ecuador has more than 35 volcanoes aligned and nicknamed the “Avenida de Volcanos” (Avenue of Volcanoes). Chimborazo is the highest one and the highest peak in the country at 6,310 meters (20,700 feet). Cotopaxi is a perfectly shaped and active stratovolcano (conical volcano), with an altitude of 5,897 meters (19,350 feet) and a base that’s 23 kilometers (14 miles) wide. Mt. Cotopaxi alone has erupted more than 50 times since 1738.
In one week, I’ll be on a plane on my way to the mitad del mundo (middle of the world). I can’t wait!
Friday, July 11, 2008
Flying day, 10:30 a.m.—Miami
This is it! I’m on my way to Ecuador.
I spent the last week finalizing the packing of all my luggage and the plans for my week of vacation before the Earthwatch expedition. It’s never easy to choose from such a variety of activities, but finally I decided to bring my mountaineering equipment and try to climb the Cotopaxi volcano before the rendezvous on July 18.
Preparing for the trip was not difficult based on my two previous experiences in Latin America. I had almost all the vaccines and the equipment needed except for a pair of rubber boots. Now, I’ve got a pair with nice red tips. I’ll be easily spotted in the forest!
Leaving my wife and my two-year-old son was not an easy task, but I’m so excited to do this trip. I’ve been waiting for five years.
I have a long day of flights (Quebec-Montreal-Miami-Quito), but I’m confident I’ll arrive in top shape and ready to discover a new culture. This week, I read my briefing one more time, giving me even more interest in the expedition. Caterpillars are a whole world to discover!
You should see the faces of my friends when I tell them I’m going to the middle of an Andean forest to collect caterpillars. I laugh every time. The effect is so fantastic!
I arrived at my destination in one piece and with my two bags. What a relief it was to see them come out on the conveyor.
The taxi ride to Old Quito went well, and I was able to speak a little bit of Spanish with the driver. My first impression was that they drive in a more “civilized” way than in other similar countries. Traffic lights are respected, and there’s not much honking! The cultural shock is not as big as I expected.
For the next few days, I’ll be staying in an old colonial house in the heart of Old Quito, the first World Heritage site designated by UNESCO in 1978.
Thursday, July 17, 2008
Last night, I woke up at midnight to be ready by 1 a.m. This is a very special night, because I’m attempting to reach the summit of one of the highest active volcanoes on the planet—Cotopaxi.
The summit is at an altitude of 5,897 meters, and I’m lucky because I’ll be climbing under a full moon! I hired a guide for safety reasons, and a third person is joining us.
We started the climb from the refuge at 4,800 meters (15,750 feet), and we walked for about 20 minutes before reaching the glacier. There, we put on our crampons and started to climb the steep slope in front of us.
Each step was difficult, because at this altitude, the oxygen content in the air is lower than at sea level. That’s also why I gave myself a couple of days to acclimatize before trying to do the climb. After a couple of days at high altitude, the stress of a lower oxygen ratio on the body makes it produce more red globules to compensate.
Our guide set a very slow pace, which was a good thing, because I couldn’t go faster anyway. Slowly we progressed toward the top. The full moon was reflecting on the ice and snow, so we didn’t need to use our headlamps. This moment was magical!
Just before reaching the summit, we could smell the sulfur—a sign that the volcano is really active! The sunrise was scheduled for 6:25 a.m., and we arrived at the top at 6:10. The timing was perfect!
The view up there was fabulous—a sea of clouds with the sun rising above, and you could see peaks breaking through the clouds. Everything was orange and beautiful. It was hard to get to the top, but it was so rewarding!
We stood beside the crater and could see fumes coming out of it. After 30 minutes on top taking pictures and engraving this scenery into my mind, we started to climb down. Going to the top is only half the job! Most accidents occur during the descent, because climbers are more tired and excited after reaching the summit.
I was still very alert and wanted to share these memories with my family and friends, which is better when you’re alive!
Going down after summiting offered completely different scenery, because the sun was up and it lit the mountains all around. At 9 a.m., I was back in good shape at the refuge, exhausted but thrilled by this fantastic experience.
Friday, July 18, 2008
Zip lines in Mindo and meeting the group in Quito
Today, I went on a guided tour to Mindo, a little city situated in the tropical cloud forest approximately three hours northeast of Quito. The road zigzagged through mountains and gullies and offered really nice, green scenery. Mindo is at the bottom of the valley, and a river crossing it offers the opportunity to swim or take a tube ride!
We went to a butterfly farm, which raises the local species and returns it to nature. A lot of different and very colorful species were flying all around, and with the help of a drop of banana juice, you could end up having one on you! It was a prelude to my Earthwatch expedition, since the caterpillars are transforming into butterflies.
In the afternoon, we went to ride zip lines in the canopy of the forest. Some of them were crossing gullies and were really long and high above the ground. It was really exciting, and I did the Superman pose (head in front, legs held by the guide), which offered a great view and a good dose of adrenaline!
For lunch, we went to a restaurant offering good hummingbird sighting opportunities. A couple of them were just coming near the tables to feed on flowers. Taking pictures of them is very difficult, because they fly so fast. You prepare yourself, and when you hear the vibrating sound coming from their wings, you hope you push the button at the right moment.
At 6 p.m., I was back at the Hotel Quito, the rendezvous point for the Earthwatch expedition. I met my fellow expedition members and our principal investigator (PI), Grant Gentry.
During a nice dinner with awesome guacamole, shrimp soup and excellent cake, I met my Alcoan friend Donna and her husband Richard. We talked about their trip to the Galapagos and the visits they’d done before meeting the group.
The team is composed of 11 people—nine from the USA, one from England, and me from Canada. Five team members are sponsored teachers, and a couple are on their fourth Earthwatch trip. I’m the only one whose first language is not English. I’ll be able to practice my second language a lot! Mixing three languages (French, Spanish, and English) will be a real challenge.
Tomorrow we’re leaving at 8 a.m. to go to the Yanayacu Research Station.
Saturday, July 19, 2008
Yanayacu “rain” station and orientation walks
We left the hotel around 8:30 a.m. to ride to the Yanayacu Research Station, which is located three hours southwest of Quito in the province of Napo, near the little pueblo (very small town) of Cosanga and on the slopes of the Antisana volcano.
On the bus we, met undergraduate and graduate students from the University of Wyoming who will spend time doing some experiments and research, mainly on wasps.
The ride to the station took us up to a pass at 3,800 meters (12,470 feet) into the paramo, a high-altitude plain. The bus was going up very slowly, giving us all the needed time to appreciate the scenery and take pictures.
On top, we stopped to look at the special hairy plants of this ecosystem. Hairy plants will lose less water by condensation than those with big leaves. Since the water supply is low and the sun is very strong at this altitude, it gives these plants a chance of survival!
The road to the station offered excellent views of the tropical cloud forest, with clouds hanging on top of the mountains. We could also see many waterfalls pouring down the slopes, and it was like they were directly coming out of the clouds. The vegetation is luxuriant and, surprisingly, the road conditions are quite good. I was expecting a bumpier ride based on my previous experiences in South America.
We arrived at the station, which is located in the middle of the tropical cloud forest and a one-hour walk from the nearest pueblo. The station is very well organized, with a giant outdoor dining room, hammocks, and many rooms. I’ll share mine with three other people: Randolph, an Earthwatch participant from Jackson, Mississippi; Will, an employee of the U.S. Department of Agriculture; and Arthur, a graduate student from the University of Wyoming. The room is small but clean, and the bed is just long enough for me!
The first meal at the station was a soup with popcorn! It’s different, and that’s one of the beauties of traveling—discovering new tastes.
In the afternoon, we put on our rain gear and rubber boots and headed out to the Macucoloma trail, where the first field training session took place. The PI was pointing out different species of plants we would need to look for during the expedition. He also gave us a sense of the dimensions of the caterpillars we needed to search for.
We stopped in front of a plant and had to find a caterpillar on it. I was expecting a big, colorful, and hairy one that was easy to spot, but it was just the opposite. In fact, it was about 5 millimeters (0.2 inches) long, green, and on the edge of a hole made on the leaf. I needed to adjust my vision to find smaller specimens!
Grant taught us that to find a caterpillar, you need to look for damage on a leaf (cut edges, holes, darker spots, etc.) and then delicately look underneath to see if one decided to take lunch on this leaf! Most of the caterpillars are found under the leaf, because it offers protection from predators like birds and wasps.
The trail was really muddy, and I was glad I brought my rubber boots. We came back to the station on the stream trail, which was a very pleasant trail alongside a stream. We needed to cross the stream at least 10 times along its length, which was another good reason to love rubber boots.
The forest is dense, and not one tree trunk is bare. All of them are covered with roots from other plants, moss, or hanging plants. Fern trees are pretty impressive, and I saw some as high as three meters (10 feet).
It rained all afternoon, and going back to the station I found only one caterpillar despite many leaf flippings. When you finally find one, you cut the leaf on which it’s lying and put it into a plastic bag. You also put in some more leaves of the same plant so the insect will have a snack for a couple of days. You then loosely tie the top of the bag to ensure the specimen won’t get out but will get some air, and you’re ready to find more.
Back at the station, we saw a caterpillar that had a parasitoid. Before going further, let’s explain the difference between two words:
- Parasitoids are the larva of an insect living in the body of the host (a caterpillar, for example). The parasitoid feeds directly on the insides of the insect, ultimately killing it.
- Parasites (insect, larva, etc.) will weaken its host but won’t kill it.
The caterpillar we looked at had little larva coming out of its side. The blood of the caterpillar is rich in nutrients, giving good food to the parasitoids, and being inside the host offers good shelter.
It was pretty interesting to see a real and living example of one goal of the research: determining the links between parasitoids and caterpillars.
Sunday, July 20, 2008
Bamboo beating and learning to“zoo”
Today we went for a walk on the station road to gather specimens of caterpillars. It was raining, and, in fact, it has rained all day and sometimes very hard. It’s a real challenge to stay dry even with rainproof clothing. Everything is wet, and I don‘t think my feet will be dry again before the end of the week!
Grant showed us the host plants on which to look for caterpillars specifically for this research; ferns, bamboo (chusquea), the aster family, and the passion flower. The goal this week is to gather many caterpillars as possible so the research can document the different stages of life (instar) of different species, from caterpillar to butterfly (or moth).
On average, a caterpillar goes through five to six instars before it pupates. Some species can have up to 12 instars! Each time the caterpillar goes from one instar to the other, the head capsule pops off and the skin sheds. Many species need to be documented with all those details, and the possibility of finding a new one is good. By rearing the caterpillars, they’ll also be able to identify parasitoids that use them to lay their eggs and develop the larvae inside the body.
This afternoon, we did some inventory work at the zoo. We had to look in plastic bags to count caterpillars and see how many of them had transformed into pupa or were dead. All this work was registered into the database.
The life on the station is pretty cool beside the bad weather. The cook, Angma, is preparing us very good meals!
The students brought a black light to attract insects on a white sheet at night. It’s amazing the number and variety of insects coming to the light. It’s a fantastic example of diversity. But sometimes their flying ability is not that good, and an insect could end up swimming on top of your hot chocolate. True-life experience!
Monday, July 21, 2008
Small caterpillars on big leaves
This morning, Rick, Debbie, Brianna, and I went on the stream trail with Sasha and Ali, two students working the whole summer at the station. Their study focuses on the caterpillar family Eois olivaceae and its host plant, the Piper aceae, which is part of the pepper family.
The plant has big, large leaves, and the green caterpillars are between three to 15 millimeters (0.1 to 0.6 inches) depending on the instar (developmental stage). The research’s goal is to find if the position of the plant in the forest (near to the road or deep in the forest) has an effect on caterpillar density and the percentage of caterpillars that have parasitoids.
This morning, we looked for plants in the forest not too close to the trail. Our task was to find a plant, flag it with a chronological number, count the total number of leaves, and then look for caterpillars. Each leaf must be checked carefully, because the caterpillars can be so small compared to the dimensions of the leaf.
When we found at least one caterpillar, we gently detached the leaf from the plant (or tree plant!) and put it in a plastic bag. We then looked at the second leaf and so on until we checked all the leaves. This family of caterpillars is feeding in a community, so most of the time we found more than one on the same leaf.
This particular family of caterpillars was chosen because a lot of research was done previously, and its behavior and instars are more documented than other families. Plus, the host plant is very easy to identify in the forest.
It was fun to be in the forest, chatting with the other people and learning more about the research the students are doing. The stream was just beside us, and the sound and the color of the forest surrounding us was kind of magical. Plus, it didn’t rain for at least 2½ hours! It’s so much fun not being all wet.
We saw a live predation event of a beetle larva sucking the blood of a caterpillar. The Earthwatch experience gives me the occasion to stop and witness completely crazy things going on in the forest. Now I won’t hike like I’ve been doing for so long. I’ll never see a damaged leaf the same way!
In the afternoon, we recounted all the caterpillars we found during the morning. This time, we had to determine at which instar each individual was. At the beginning, it’s not easy to assign an instar, but after a while, you can compare size and become more confident.
All the data were entered into the computer to analyze later. After a couple hours, we finished the job, and I had spare time to take advantage of the stream trail to get good pictures. The sun came out for a couple minutes at the end of the afternoon, bringing enthusiasm to the team and warming us a little bit!
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Looking for pupa, butterflies, and moths
This morning, I went for a run on the road passing in front of the station. It’s a really quiet gravel road with absolutely no traffic on it, except for the bulls!
After couple of kilometers, I encountered a bull in the middle of the road. He looked at me like I was disturbing him and his kingdom. I thought it was safer to turn back than try to pass by.
After my run, I stayed in the zoo to take care of the reared caterpillars. Our job is to look inside each plastic bag to see if the pupa is still alive or if it has been infected with a parasitoid. Normally, when you touch the tip of the pupa, it reacts a little bit, confirming it’s alive. Sometimes, the pupa has transformed into a butterfly!
For each change in the status of the pupa (dead or transformed), we need to enter the data into the computer. The date of each transformation is entered, and some comments are added depending on the results.
We all sit close to each other, chatting while doing the verification and sharing our findings. Each bag is like a surprise, because there are a lot of different species. One bag contained a butterfly with clear wings you could see through!
The size of the pupa varies, with a range of five to 60 millimeters (0.2 to 2.4 inches) depending on the species. We need to flip the bag inside out to reduce the humidity at which the pupa is exposed.
After lunch, I went on the road with Brianna and Wilmur to look for caterpillars. Wilmur is Ecuadorian and is employed by the station to find and rear caterpillars and to document the database. His presence makes it possible to continue the research for the whole year, because researchers and students cannot be present full time. By employing local people, the station improves their knowledge of the forest and shows them its diversity.
In other part of the country like Amazonia, educating locals gave good results. Some communities established eco-tourism based on this knowledge and, at the same time, protected very important forests. This is what sustainability is all about.
Deforestation is a major issue in Ecuador. Poor people are cutting trees to create farmland and to generate a small income with three to four cows and couple of sheep. Unfortunately, the soil is poor, and after a couple of crops, it’s impossible to grow more grain. More trees are then cut, and so on.
In the region of the station, they’re still documenting the species, their interactions, and their uniqueness, so it may take many years before eco-tourism or other sustainable activity takes place. But at least we know that by looking for caterpillars, maybe we’ll discover a rare species that could bring people here.
Finding caterpillars is not easy. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack or going fishing. Under each leaf, you wish that a caterpillar will be hiding! We turn over a lot of damaged leaves before finding one with a caterpillar. At some point, it can become discouraging. But then, you turn one and find a green fluo caterpillar with yellow hair and you become very excited. Put it in the bag, and you’re cranked for another hour!
The other part of the group was looking for caterpillars on the plant species called chusquea, or bamboo for the more familiar. With the bamboo, you can use a more “mechanical and encouraging way” to look for caterpillars. With a kite-like sheet and a stick, you can gather many specimens in a short time. You place the sheet under the bamboo and hit the branch sharply about two to three times. Many things fall down on the sheet: leaves, bugs, beetles, worms, and, of course, caterpillars. Then you just need to recover them and put them into a plastic bag with a few leaves.
We ended the day with a nice afternoon under the sun. It’s the first time in three days that we felt this dry. It was so good to feel the sun’s warmth!
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
Ridge trail and pasture; looking for Notodontidae
Today it’s the ridge trail with Grant (PI) and the students. We started behind the zoo onto a trail that didn’t look like a trail. We had to crunch and crawl under bamboo branches to advance. Progression was very slow until we reached the ridge itself. Then we had a nice path going up that offered nice views of the station.
We had to look for caterpillars on a host plant named Melastomatacea. This plant has leaves that look like crocodile skin. The family of caterpillar we’re looking for is Notodontidae, and it transforms into a moth.
Once again, we were looking for them under each damaged leaf. I finally found one, right on the edge of the hole it was eating. This individual was different shades of green and was acting like it didn’t see me! It wore very good camouflage. It was a good catch—maybe a new species!
We didn’t find too many caterpillars during this hike, and we also lost the path. We ended up in a pasture and found our way (just in time for lunch) following the cow’s landmarks under a pouring rain…again.
After lunch, I went on the Macucoloma trail with the same group looking for the same caterpillar. We found a lot of host plants but none with caterpillars on them. It was a good thing that the sun decided to share a bit of its rays with us, because it would have been a very discouraging afternoon.
The light into the forest is fantastic, showing all the shades of green and the different types of plants and trees. When the sun is out, the forest is reborn: butterflies fly, birds sing, and people smile.
The view of the mountains from the balcony of the station was particularly nice tonight, and it was a good thing, because it was Jodie’s birthday! For that occasion, they cooked two good cakes. It’s the first time since the beginning of the week that we had a dessert. I’m so happy!
It was very fun to see the cakes and the candles with everybody singing “Happy Birthday” in this unique place. I’m pretty sure Jodie will remember this special day for a long time.
Thursday, July 24, 2008
Snacks on the Magic Birding Loop and caterpillar photo shoot
This morning, I’m in charge of a group of people for a search on the Magic Birding Loop, a trail for bird lovers down the station’s road. I’m in charge because I know the path (having been there the previous day) and the kind of caterpillar and host plant (having found one the previous day) and because most of the students are on vacation today.
We are a group of five, and we found about eight caterpillars the whole morning. At least it was not raining!
I was expecting that it would be a lot easier to find caterpillars in such a luxuriant forest. I was expecting to flip a leaf and then find one, but instead it took a lot of patience and very good eyes!
The chances of missing one are quite high, but after a couple of days in the forest, I developed skills to become more effective. My sense of dimension is now adjusted, so all the dark spots on a leaf may be a tiny caterpillar. The freshly damaged leaves have more potential to host an individual, and taking one or two steps out of the path gives you more opportunity. Finally, my patience to stay concentrated and focused on the job is my best friend!
At 10:30 a.m., my troop was a little bit tired, so we had a snack break. I provided bars and nuts brought from Canada for everyone. I believe that a happy employee is a more effective employee! After snacking, we collected two or three more caterpillars, proving my theory is right!
After lunch, I was assigned to the zoo to take pictures of the newly collected caterpillars. Since photography is one of my favorite hobbies, I was quite glad to spend my afternoon behind the lens. I had to take shots of each caterpillar with its database number and from three different angles: side, top, and angled. Some individuals were cooperative, but others were happy to be out of the plastic bag and were running on the table.
I had great fun participating in the project to document the caterpillars through photos that will be posted on a website. The website will give information on all the stages of development (instar) of the caterpillar and, ultimately, the moth or butterfly that it transforms into. It’s a lot of work, and the PI has been working for years on this project. Maybe one day one of my pictures will be posted on the website and in a book!
During my spare time at the end of the afternoon, I went back on the stream trail, where I found a line of moving leaves. In fact, it was small pieces of leaf moving on the ground and on a bamboo branch, with each piece being held by a leaf-cutter ant. It was impressive to see the distance they were walking to transport the leaf pieces into their nest. This kind of ant is one of the biggest herbivores in the forest.
For dinner, we had a delicious grilled chicken cooked on a fire, a beautiful sunset, and wonderful talks with the other participants. I like to share one week with new people, because you learn about their backgrounds and you have the opportunity to discover completely different worlds. That’s another great thing about traveling.
Tonight, we had a very fascinating lecture on the cosmology of life and the Big Bang Theory given by Scott, the University of Wyoming professor. I won’t give details, because they were given in an overwhelming quantity, but one thing I learned was that the earth’s rotation is due to an impact of an asteroid that also created the moon.
Friday, July 25, 2008
Looking for pictures and caterpillars on the stream trail
This morning, I went on the stream trail to collect caterpillars but also to take pictures, because it’s my last chance to immortalize this very nice spot. The week is almost over— time flies so fast!
During my search for caterpillars, I found a mommy beetle with its small baby on a leaf. It was not what I was looking for, but it was amazing to see. One thing this project gave me is a reminder to take the time to look when you’re in the forest. You’re apt to discover wonderful things. I’m sure on my next hikes in Quebec, I’ll be looking for insects under the leaves! I can wait to show my son how to find caterpillars and other cool bugs.
We also found a fallen tree in the middle of the path that wasn’t there the previous day. A fallen tree is interesting, because it gives you the opportunity to look for caterpillars on a host plant that you wouldn’t have the chance to look at because it grows high in the canopy. We were lucky, because we collected one caterpillar from the tree.
It was a pretty relaxing morning, and the afternoon started in the same mood. We waited for the downpour to stop before heading into the forest one last time. Once on the trail, we found a caterpillar on the edge of pupating that was on the crocodile skin-like host plant. It was a really good catch, and it ended the week in a very positive way.
Here are the statistics after one week of intense search for caterpillars:
Total: 888 individuals (48 caterpillars per day)
Eois Family: 650 (piper plant)
Non-Eois: 238 (26 butterflies and 212 moths)
For dinner, we had trout from the river close to the station, and the students gave a lecture on their work done at the station. The wasp team discovered 10 new species during this week! It’s impressive to witness that there’s a lot more to learn from the planet, even if we think most of it has been discovered. There is so much diversity in so many different fields of research. It’s incredible.
Saturday, July 26, 2008
Shopping at Otavalo’s market
Today is our day off, and we left the station early this morning to head toward Otavalo, a town northwest of Quito. Otavalo is well-known, because it holds Ecuador’s biggest market every Saturday. It will be the time to buy souvenirs and handcrafts made by local people.
The market is not only for tourists but also for locals who are coming to sell and buy animals, fruits, and vegetables. They also have the opportunity to buy commodities like shoes, pants, cookware, etc.
The bus ride to Otavalo takes more than four hours and offers different scenery: mountains with clouds, pastures, eucalyptus trees, greenhouses for roses, and, finally, the lake close by Otavalo.
The market is very colorful, and you can buy a lot of different things—alpaca wool scarves, paintings, wool sweaters, wallets, musical instruments, Ecuadorian hats known as Panama hats, bags to bring back all the souvenirs you bought, etc. I like to wander in this kind of market to look at the talents of the local people and to discover a different culture.
We had a very good dinner in a restaurant that had live Ecuadorian music and a very good coconut ice cream cone for dessert.
Sunday, July 27, 2008
Quito, teleferico, and adios amigos!
Before heading back to Quito, I went to the Peguche waterfall this morning. It was a 10-minute drive from Otavalo to a nice park with waterfalls going through it. I took a path in a eucalyptus forest to the base of the Peguche waterfall. It was very quiet because it was Sunday morning.
After this little trip, I went back to the hotel, and we left for Quito. In the afternoon, I went up the teleferico (gondola) to get a fantastic view of Quito. As I mentioned earlier, Quito is the second highest capital in the world after La Paz in Bolivia. The teleferico goes up the Pinchincha volcano and offers a splendid view of the city from an altitude of 4,100 meters (13,450 feet). We were at the same height as the clouds, but we were still able to see the city at the bottom of the valley.
Quito is 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) long and only three kilometers (1.9 miles) wide, and, as I mentioned, its old part was named a World Heritage Site. You can visit the oldest church in South America and see many colonial buildings.
Back at the hotel, we went out for the last team dinner. It was a nice evening with a lot of fun. Peggy wrote a song and Lela a rap on our experience at the station hunting for caterpillars! The lyrics were quite funny and close to reality.
I’m sad, because it’s already over. I had a terrific time with all these people. I sincerely hope to see them again.
I want to thank Grant Gentry (PI), the team, the students, and the Yanayacu personnel for the time and knowledge they shared with me. I learned a lot of new things, and this experience will be engraved in my memory.
Above all, I want to thank Alcoa for giving me this fantastic opportunity. I’m proud to work for a company that shows environmental leadership and believes in the principle that awareness is the key for sustainability.
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Hunting for Caterpillars in the Andes
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