The Trials and Tribulations of “Tent City”

We have been here on Ilha do Cardoso for 2 and a half weeks now and my first experiment is officially up and running.  I am quite happy to report that there will be no more construction, reconstruction, or ‘tweaking’ of what I have affectionately (or otherwise) dubbed “Tent City”.  As I told Diane right before she left the island, no matter how long I spent planning, visualizing, describing and convincing my committee of this project, NOTHING could have prepared me for what it would be like to construct it.

When we first arrived in Cananeia and started unloading all of the equipment that our Brazilian hosts so amazingly and graciously procured for us, I did a bit of a double take at the huge pile of lumber I had apparently asked for.  These were my 200, 1.5 metre long wooden stakes for constructing my enclosures.  I cannot thank the entire crew, Canadian and Brazilian alike, enough for helping lug the whole pile not once, but 4 times to eventually get it to our field site at the restinga forest.  From there, my tiny, amazingly tough and cheerful , Brazilian field assistant named “Fish” set off into the forest with me with little idea of what we were getting ourselves into.

With a pile of stakes on each shoulder, and dressed in enough clothes to survive a day of Canadian winter field work we set off.  The heat, while sledgehammering stakes into the ground wearing 3 layers to protect against mosquitoes in Brazilian summer is an obvious hurdle.  Needless to say, this contributed quite a lot of sweat to the project. 

What I was less prepared for was how much our study bromeliad, Quesnelia arvensis, does NOT like being studied.  It grows like a waist-high carpet on the ground with spines along the length of the leaves and needle-like spikes at the tips.  This is why most researchers stick to the paths… but Tent City had to extend quite a ways off the path.  Apparently other researchers could hear my and Fish’s exclamations of pain throughout the restinga.  Despite the armour of long layers everywhere and leather gloves, this is what

me in the midst of my masterpiece!

contributed the blood to the project.

After 3 days of this, we realized that if these enclosures are going to stand for a year, they are going to need much more reinforcement to stop the tops from sagging and caving in.  My Brazilian counterpart – Paula, the PhD student who has been coming to Cardoso for years – solved that problem with the brilliant idea of adding a wire “X” to the tops to support the middle of the mesh roof.  Great. Awesome.  We finished the rest of the enclosures with that design, but it meant that the 16 large enclosures we had already finished were going to need to be fixed.  I’m not ashamed to say that after crawling on my belly through a mud puddle, sitting inside one of my enclosures with wire cutters digging into my side and my bromeliad poking me in the eye, the final ingredient, tears, were contributed to the project.

But restinga wasn’t through with me yet.  On the last day, on my last enclosure to fix and to be done with construction once and for all… the restinga called in the army.  I approached my last enclosure only to find it completely engulfed by a seething swarm of ants!  *(see previous posts by me, from Costa Rica to learn my true feelings about ants)*  I trudged back to our makeshift lab defeated, to tell the tale.  Andrew, thank goodness, identified it as a possible swarm of army ants!  He was excited about the prospect of seeing ant birds; I was excited about the prospect of them leaving!  So back we went to find that the swarm was in fact moving on (and Andrew got to see an ant bird!) and I was able to complete my repairs and return triumphant.

I am sustained by the idea that if Tent City remains standing for the full year, the potential for interesting and amazing outcome of this project is huge.  Then all the blood, sweat, and tears will be worth it!

Report from Guatemala

I’ve finally started the insect survey in Salamá, Guatemala!
I’m working with the local NGO, FUNDEMABV.
My field site, Los Cerritos, is just behind our office.
It’s a typical dry forest with many huge cactuses.
Now I’m mainly collecting butterflies, most of them are small but nice!
I’m looking forward to seeing many beetles in wet season (May-October).
I’ll stay here for 2 years, so come and see me anytime during that period!