Donna Schneider's Diary

Monday, May 5, 2008 Tuesday, July 1, 2008
Sunday, July 6, 2008 Friday, July 11, 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, May 5, 2008 Only slightly more than two months to the start of my expedition. I will be hunting for caterpillars in the Andes.

I was very surprised to get the acceptance email on the last day of January. I had been sitting at my computer when I got an unexpected email titled “2008 Alcoa Earthwatch Fellowship Program.” My heart was racing as I opened it. This was the second year I had applied for a fellowship, and last year’s email told me that I was not one of the selected. What a wonderful surprise when this year’s email said “Congratulations.” As I read further, I found out that I was going to hunt for caterpillars in Ecuador in July. I couldn’t wait to tell my family, but no one was home. Then it was immediately to the Internet to see what I could find about Ecuador. I knew it was on the equator but not much more. 

I was expecting that the weather would be hot—wouldn’t you expect that in July on the equator? But no. Where we will be working is in the cloud forest at 2,000 meters (6,600 feet) in altitude. The weather will most likely be wet, and daily temperatures will range from 10° to 30° Celsius (50° to 85° Fahrenheit). We are supposed to bring warm clothes for the cool evenings.

We will be working at the Yanayacu Biological Station on the eastern slopes of the Andes. I learned that Ecuador has such biodiversity that it is one of few countries labeled “mega-diverse.”

Ecuador is a country of many diverse regions. We will be flying into the capital, Quito, which sits at 2,830 meters (9,300 feet) above sea level. Travel books caution about the possibility of altitude

The eastern region of Ecuador is known as El Oriente and is a vast area of lowland tropical rainforests and jungle rivers. It is considered part of the Amazon basin. Probably the most famous part of Ecuador is the Galapagos Islands, which are located about 965 kilometers (600 miles) offshore.

My husband will be joining me on the expedition as a private contributor, along with the other Alcoa fellow, Pascal Rochette. My husband and I are going to Ecuador on July 5 so we can visit the Amazon basin and the Galapagos before we join up with the Earthwatch team on July 18.

I got my first set of vaccinations last week in preparation for the trip. It will be here before I know it.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008 Only slightly more than two weeks until the start of my Earthwatch expedition.

My husband and I are actually leaving on Saturday, July 5 to explore some of the natural wonders of Ecuador before the expedition. I am really excited and a little nervous—feelings I usually experience before a new adventure. 

I have been practicing my Spanish in preparation for the visit. Last weekend was filled with gathering items to pack, checking lists, and generating new lists of things to do for work before we leave and to take on the trip.

I checked the weather for Quito (capital of Ecuador), where we land, and saw that the forecast is for a temperature between 17° and 19° Celsius (62° to 68° Fahrenheit). It is forecasted to be partly sunny during the day with a chance of rain in the evenings. The guidebooks say that Quito weather is “forever spring,” although the city is located about 24 kilometers (15 miles) south of the equator. Quito’s altitude of 2,830 meters (9,300 feet) is the reason for the cool temperatures.

We start our adventure in Quito, which is located in north central Ecuador on the eastern slopes of Pichincha, an active volcano. Quito was established in 1534 after it was founded by the Spaniard Francisco Pizarro. The official name is San Francisco de Quito. The Old Town in Quito is very well preserved and was the first named UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978.

Recently, we received the list of volunteers for our expedition. Besides me, my husband (Richard), and Pascal (my fellow Alcoan volunteer), there are eight other team members from the United Kingdom and various parts of the United States. I look forward to meeting everyone and hearing why they chose this expedition.

The guidebooks say there are many Internet cafes in Quito, so I will be updating my diary whenever I get a chance prior to the start of the Earthwatch expedition.

Sunday, July 6, 2008 This was our first day in Ecuador, and we spent it in the capital city of Quito. I was very surprised that today we felt very little effects from the altitude, as Quito is at 2,850 meters (9,300 feet).

When we landed late last night, I had some difficulty breathing for the first couple of hours, but today we had no problems and visited the Old Town and walked more than eight kilometers (five miles). 

We had an unplanned surprise today. After attending church at the cathedral, we walked into the Plaza Grande and found ourselves watching a parade celebrating the cultural heritage of Ecuador. There were native dancers, marching bands, and stilt walkers. Later, we went to the top of El Panecillo Hill to visit the 45-meter-tall (148-foot) winged La Virgen de Quito monument. From there, we had fantastic views of the whole city. 

From now until we meet our expedition team, we will be exploring the wonders of Ecuador. Tomorrow we leave to visit an eco-lodge in the lower Napo River, which feeds into the Amazon. We will fly into Coca on the eastern side of the Andes and take a canoe ride down the river to the eco-lodge.

Friday, July 11, 2008 On Monday, we traveled to the Amazonia region of Ecuador by flying from Quito to Coca. We then traveled two hours down the Napo River in a motorized canoe. Once we reached Yasuni National Park, we transferred to a paddle canoe for a 1.5-hour trip to Anangu Lake. 

This area of the jungle is owned by the Kitchwa indigenous people. The native community of 137 adults has decided to protect its lands and run the Napo Wildlife Center Eco-Lodge to provide work for its members and to protect the environment, which is being significantly impacted by oil exploration activities. 

This idea was developed by eight community members in 2000 as a way to keep the males of the community near their families. Previously, they had to travel many hours to work in the jungle for the oil companies.

They proposed their ideas to many outside groups to get financial backing and training on how to run a first-class eco-lodge. A group from Florida came forward to help the Kitchwa make their dream come true. As of 2008, the lodge is being operated solely by the Kitchwa. 

While there, we saw an incredible number of birds, including parrots and toucans. We observed four types of monkeys swinging through the trees right around the lodge. We also saw a caiman, a freshwater ray, and tree frogs.

Each day, we had two excursions to different areas with a naturalist and a native guide.  The guide demonstrated how the Kitchwa use many of the plants and animals to support their daily life. It was an incredible adventure into the jungle world.

Saturday, July 19, 2008 The time has finally arrived! Last night, we met our Earthwatch team along with our principal investigator, Grant Gentry, in Quito. Our team consists of 11 members—seven women and four men, and six of the 11 are teachers. Finally, I got to meet my fellow Alcoan, Pascal Rochette. We had traded emails, but this was our first face-to-face meeting. I think this team will work well together.
This morning, we drove from Quito to the Yanayacu Biological Station, where we will be spending the next week searching for caterpillars in the Andes. It is only about 130 kilometers (80 miles) from Quito to Yanayacu, but it took four hours to get there because we had to cross the Andes from west to east.
During the drive, we crossed the Andes at a pass that was about 3,960 meters (13,000 feet) in altitude. The Yanayacu Biological Station is located on the eastern slope of the Antisana volcano at 2,100 meters (6,890 feet) in altitude. The land around the station is composed of 80% primary tropical cloud forest. The remaining land is cleared forest for cow pasture, most of which is abandoned. 
This area was selected because the terrain is not as steep as other areas of the cloud forest in the Andes. A cloud forest is a moist forest characterized by a high incidence of low-level cloud cover, usually at the canopy level. This moisture causes lots of moss and epiphytes (a plant that grows on another plant but is not parasitic) to grow everywhere.

The project we are supporting is the longest ongoing project at Yanayacu. It has been in existence since 2000. The goal of the research is to collect and raise caterpillars in order to identify new species and find out what they eat, what species of adult butterfly they become, and what parasitoids attack them.

This research project at Yanayacu is part of a multi-site caterpillar project that includes sites in Costa Rica and Louisiana. This project is different from many other studies of caterpillars, because the researchers are not just studying the adult moths and butterflies, but also trying to link the caterpillars to the adults. Of the 160,000 described species of butterflies and moths, only 15,000 of the associated caterpillars have been identified.

Besides our Earthwatch team, there are several other groups at the station this week. One group of undergraduate and graduate students is lead by Dr. Paul Shaw of the University of Wyoming (another investigator on this project). They are studying parasitoid wasps.  There are also three undergraduates who have already been here for a month working on two different projects, all part of the same goal. It is very interesting to listen and watch these students—they really LOVE bugs!

Sunday July 20, 2008 Rain, rain, and more rain. It started to rain around dinner time last night and rained all night and day. I have never experienced so much heavy rain. The heavy-duty rain gear that we brought looks like it will come in useful. 
In addition to the rain, the temperature range for today was from 13° to 18° Celsius (55° to 65° Fahrenheit), chilly for what you might expect at the equator. The combination of rain and cool temperatures made it feel colder than I expected based on the Earthwatch literature. Luckily, I had added another polar fleece vest to the clothes they told us to bring. 

Last night, Grant Gentry (the principal investigator with our team) gave us a lecture on the science of butterflies and moths. The life cycle starts with eggs that become caterpillars that become pupa and then finally butterflies or moths, and then the cycle begins again. 

What was really new to me was that caterpillars grow through multiple phases called instars. The caterpillar that hatches from the egg is called the first instar caterpillar. That caterpillar eats until it grows larger than its skin. It then molts and is now the second instar caterpillar. Most caterpillars go through at least five instars. 

What is also amazing is that each instar can look totally different from the other instar. Besides size, they can change color or markings. When the caterpillar reaches its final instar, it will begin to develop a hard shell and become a pupa. Inside the pupa, the caterpillar body is transforming itself into a moth or butterfly depending on the species. 

I also learned that caterpillar species typically only eat one type of plant or plant family. This is known as the host plant. Part of this project is understanding which caterpillars eat which plants, so we will be collecting host plants as we go along.

Today, we searched for caterpillars on the two main trails around the station. One is called the stream trail, because you have to cross a small stream at least 15 times—that is approximate, because I kept loosing count. The other trail, which is steeper and muddier, is the Macucoloma Trail. We definitely needed our knee-high mud boots to walk the trail. 

Grant showed us how to look for plant damage and search the plant for the caterpillar. We then had to bag the caterpillars along with some plant material in plastic bags that we all carried. At the end of the “hunt,” we dropped the bags off at the caterpillar zoo.

Monday, July 21, 2008 Today, we learned about another aspect of this project—parasitoids. Parasitoids are organisms that spend a significant portion of their life attached to or within a host organism, which they ultimately kill. Parasitoids differ from parasites in that parasites typically live side-by-side with its host without doing lethal damage. In the caterpillar world, typical parasitoids are wasps and tachinidae flies.

Why are parasitoids important? It starts with the fact that in some forests, caterpillars eat more plant leaves than all the other herbivores together. Parasitoidism is the mechanism that keeps the number of caterpillars in control and maintains the ecological balance so the caterpillars don’t decimate the forest. It is important to understand how this mechanism works so that we don’t unknowingly destroy the balance.

Today’s focus for the team was to work in the caterpillar zoo, or machina. This is a very important part of the project, because what makes this project different and difficult is that the scientists are trying to identify all the instars of the caterpillar and the interactions between the host plant, the caterpillar, and any parasitoids. Therefore, any collected caterpillars are cared for so that the instars and any parasitoids can be identified and documented.

The steps in taking care of the caterpillars are as follows:
  • Step 1: Newly collected caterpillars are given an identification number, entered into the computer, photographed, and put into plastic bags along with leaves from their host plants. The bags are hung on clothes lines in the zoo shed.
  • Step 2. Every couple of days, the bags are checked to see if the caterpillar has progressed to a new instar or pupa. If the caterpillar is now a pupa, it is put on a different clothes line to wait to see what emerges (moth/butterfly or parasitoid). Bags without pupa are cleaned of the frass (caterpillar feces) and checked for condensation, and new host plant leaves are added if needed. (Cleaning frass generally was not a job that everyone liked!)
I actually was able to put my photography hobby to work and spent my time in the zoo photographing the caterpillar specimens. The pictures of the caterpillars will be used to document the various instars of the caterpillar. If any of the caterpillars are actually new species, then the photo records will enable the researchers to give a complete documentation of the species.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008 We woke up today to some sun, but the sky changed to cloudy very quickly. The day ended up being a mixture of sun, clouds, and, of course, some rain.

Today’s work task was to help the two undergraduate students (Allie and Sasha), who have already spent a month at Yanayacu, collect more of the caterpillars they needed for their project. They are studying the common Eios caterpillar in two different environments—inside the forest and along the roadside on the piper plant species. The plant that produces black pepper is in the piper family. 

The project Allie and Sasha are working on is supporting someone’s Ph.D. thesis work.  They are trying to determine if the parasitoidism rate is different in the forest and on the roadside. This is an attempt to determine if building roads could affect the balance of the Eios caterpillar, and they need to collect 1,000 caterpillars from each environment.

We drove 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) up a very bumpy gravel road to a location they had selected along the roadside. We were collecting off the Piper lancifolium plant. For each plant, we had to count the number of leaves and then count and bag all the caterpillars.  Our goal was to collect 450 caterpillars.

It only took the group several hours to get the needed caterpillars. We actually collected 495 Eios caterpillars. The students were ecstatic—it would have taken them weeks to gather so many caterpillars.

After lunch, our job was to go through all those bags, again verifying the number of caterpillars, identifying the instar of each caterpillar, and preparing the bags to be recorded into the Yanayacu database. Since the biological station opened in 2000, they have collected more than 35,000 caterpillars!

During our recreation time before dinner, Richard, Peggy (one of our Earthwatch team members), and I decided to walk to Cosanga, the nearest town about five kilometers (3.1 miles) away. We got a ride most of the way there but had to walk back. It seemed to be 80% uphill.

The town can be found on most Ecuadorian maps, but it is very small—less than a few hundred people live there along a whitewater river. We went to the town market to purchase some snacks, but the selection was limited. Peggy bought most of the available chocolate to share with the rest of the group. On the way back, we saw our first Ecuadorian rainbow.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008 Today was another collection day. Richard and I searched the stream trail with Wilmer, who works full time at the station taking care of the caterpillars. Wilmer has limited English, so we had to communicate with my limited Spanish, his limited English, and lots of hand signals. 

We were on a special mission to find a specific type of caterpillar—Notodontidae—that has horizontal back legs and were for Grant Gentry’s research. We were looking on three targeted plants, one being the passion flower. This was very interesting, since I have a passion flower plant on my patio at home.

We only found six caterpillars—not a very successful morning.

In the afternoon, we tried a different method to find the same type of caterpillars. This time we used a stick and a stretched canvas to “beat” the chusquea (bamboo) to see what would fall out onto the canvas. One person would hold the end of the chusquea and the canvas kite, and the other person would hit the chusquea with short, abrupt smacks to loosen the insects. Then both people would search on the canvas to see what was dislodged.

This was much more successful for finding the Notodontidae, along with many other insects. We found several walking sticks, a praying mantis, and a big, brown Nymphalidae caterpillar that we later found out would turn into a beautiful butterfly.

The Ecuadorian food served at Yanayacu is very different from what we had experienced in Ecuador during our first two weeks. We were warned in our Earthwatch briefing not to expect any meat. In other parts of Ecuador, meat or fish was served at both lunch and dinner.

The meals at Yanayacu are very carbohydrate abundant. For lunch and dinner, we have soup (an Ecuadorian staple), but surprise—they serve it with popcorn that’s to be placed into the broth as you eat it. Each meal also includes a combination of potatoes, corn, rice, and pasta, with at least two being served at each meal. We always have some type of salad containing tomatoes, onions, and cabbage. On Sunday, we had some tuna mixed into our pasta salad. 

Everyone is craving protein—it gives us something to look forward to at the end of the expedition.

Thursday, July 24, 2008 This turned out to be the nicest weather day so far. There was lots of sun, and it only rained while we were back at the station for lunch. We were actually able to get our towels to dry today!

We spent the morning working in the zoo categorizing the caterpillars that we collected yesterday. Again, I was the photographer. I got to photograph several large, strange-looking caterpillars. Several caterpillars had never been collected at the station before, and one of the caterpillars Richard collected was white, yellow, and black and really furry. It was new to the station and was given the common name of “Lemonade & Flies.”

In the afternoon, the part of the team that worked in the zoo in the morning got an opportunity to collect in the field. This time, we walked in the opposite direction on the dirt road and collected on the roadside. It gave us an opportunity to enjoy the sunshine while we collected. Because there was lots of sunshine, we saw many butterflies in the road puddles. It was a great afternoon—our first work session without any rain. 

Everyone spent their recreation time sunning on the porches of the station. 

Friday, July 25, 2008 This is our last day at the Yanayacu Station, and we had “open” hunting of caterpillars.  We could take any of the trails to hunt for the desired types of caterpillars.

Richard, Pascal, and I decided to search on the stream trail. This time we brought our cameras along to try and capture the beauty of the cloud forest.

The cloud forest is an interesting environment. While everything looks lush and green, the rich soil is only a few inches thick. Beneath the decaying material, the soil is sandy clay with very little nutrients. This causes the trees to have very shallow roots, and heavy winds can cause many trees to topple over. When a big tree falls, it takes many smaller ones with it. Another phenomenon is that anything on the ground quickly gets covered by moss, and other plants start to grow on it.

We had a surprise for dinner tonight. Dr. Shaw had gone down to Cosanga and visited a trout farm located there. Trout finishing is very big in the area. He purchased 30 25-centimeter (10-inch) trout for US$20, and we had them for dinner. Since our diet for the week had contained lots of carbohydrates and little protein, the meal was very much appreciated.

We had a wrap-up lecture tonight. Each of the three groups of students presented their projects, and Grant gave us the statistics from our team’s work. We collected and inputted into the database 888 caterpillars, of which 650 were the Eois caterpillars that Allie and Sasha were studying. The other 238 were from 16 different families. We found 50 caterpillars or pupa with parasistoids emerging. 

Typically, Earthwatch teams find anywhere from 600 to 1,000 caterpillars during their week. Grant was especially pleased, because our task was more difficult than usual since we were asked to focus only on several specific types of caterpillars.

Saturday, July 26, 2008 We had an early wake-up call today. Breakfast was at 6:30 a.m. because we were leaving Yanayacu via bus at 7. Guess what it was doing when we woke up—heavy rains. Guess we are going to leave Yanayacu the way we arrived—wet.

Today is our scheduled recreation day, so the team decided to visit Otavalo, a town in the Andean highlands that is northwest of Quito. The bus ride took us five hours. On the way, we dropped off the University of Wyoming team on the outskirts of Quito.

Otavalo is located at 2,560 meters (8,434 feet). It is the center of a thriving handicraft industry run by the local indigenous people. The Saturday market in Otavalo is the largest handicraft market in South America, and we arrived in town right after lunch so we could visit the market. The whole team enjoyed shopping for beautiful handicrafts.

Otavalo also has a food market, where the indigenous people come from near and far to sell their produce and baked goods. We discovered a new fruit while in Otavalo—the tree tomato. Although it belongs to the same plant family as the tomato we eat, the tree tomato grows on a small, perennial shrub in the highlands (1,524 to 3,048 meters—5,000 to 10,000 feet—in altitude). This tomato is egg-shaped and colorful when ripe, with a golden orange or deep red color. You can find them being sold all over the food market. In Ecuador, it is not uncommon to be served tree tomato juice with breakfast. Local custom says that the tree tomato can treat many medical problems, including respiratory diseases and obesity.

Probably the highlight of the day was dinner. We visited a traditional Ecuadorian restaurant, where we enjoyed live music and a wide selection of meat!

Sunday, July 27, 2008 Today is our last day together as an Earthwatch team. We had a few more hours to spend in Otavalo before boarding the bus back to Quito. Richard and I started the morning by attending mass at the main Catholic church in town. It is very plain on the outside and backs up directly to the food market. Inside it has a beautiful gold-leaf altar and many beautiful paintings.

It was very crowded at 6:30 in the morning. Interestingly, people as well as several dogs wandered in and out at various times. 

Next, we visited the handicraft market to get a final few items, and the group reconvened to have breakfast. After searching for a place that could serve all of us, we ate in a restaurant overlooking the market. It was an interesting perspective seeing the hustle and bustle from above.

Upon returning to Quito, Richard, Pascal, Rick (a fellow Earthwatch team member from Dallas), and I decided to ascend the Pichincha volcano via El Teleferiqo—a six-person cable car that climbs 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) in eight minutes. It puts you at an elevation of 4,050 meters (13,280 feet) looking down on the city of Quito. Quite an impressive site! While we were there, the clouds started coming over the city, and we even saw a rainbow!

We concluded our Earthwatch adventure with a team dinner near our hotel. The week’s activities had certainly brought the team together, with lots of shared memories. One of our members who is a kindergarten teacher even wrote a song to commemorate our adventure, and we all sang it together in the restaurant!

I would like to thank Alcoa for the opportunity to represent the company as an Earthwatch fellow and for all the new experiences. I can’t wait to share my adventure with my Alcoa friends back home.

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Hunting for Caterpillars in the Andes

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