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Explorers Club Grant recipient Nathan Lujan begins Aquatic Inventory of the Rio Mamore
Posted on October 14, 2011

Working with The Explorers Club, Eddie Bauer is funding two significant grants for research and exploration. The grants are directed toward projects that contribute significantly to work regarding climate change, preservation or sustainability. Grant recipient Nathan Lujan is studying Aquatic Inventory of the Rio Mamore: the Last Untouched Corner of the Amazon.

By Nathan Lujan

As a youth, I was fascinated by the legendary accounts of early tropical explorers like Alexander von Humboldt, Alfred Russell Wallace, and Henry Walter Bates, but I had the feeling that I had been born 150 years too late—that I had missed the golden age of scientific exploration and that I now lived in a time when sterile laboratories had replaced wild terrains as the principle venues for scientific discovery.

Now, having conducted over a dozen scientific expeditions to remote areas of South America and Africa and having discovered novel ecological interactions, ancient biogeographic connections and dozens of new species, I realize that my regrets were naive. We continue to live in an exciting age of discovery. Indeed, the wildernesses that await our exploration and the discoveries that remain to be made in untrammeled areas of the Earth far exceed the relatively meager resources and personnel available for expeditionary science. Many great ecological mysteries persist even as increasing threats from human population growth and climate change place Earth’s ecological integrity in peril. With this sense of urgency, I was very glad to discover that the Explorer’s Club and Eddie Bauer were providing grants to support much-needed exploratory research, and I was delighted to hear that I had been chosen as one of their first recipients.

Over the course of my PhD and my subsequent post-doc at Texas A&M University, I’ve planned and executed nearly a dozen expeditions to five different countries in South America and Africa, but I had never before been to Bolivia. I had observed, though, that every country has idiosyncrasies of culture and political bureaucracy that must be understood and navigated by any foreign scientist wishing to study, collect, and depart with elements of that nation’s biological patrimony. Even with the best intentions of sharing knowledge, skills, and resources, the work of a biologist in another country can be easily misconstrued. Moreover, Bolivia’s administration had been at odds with the United States both philosophically and politically and had recently enacted a law that gave fundamental rights to nature, which seemed as if it might even prevent nature from being thoroughly examined by people like me.

I therefore began planning my trip with a certain sense of trepidation. Would I get the permits I needed to collect and export specimens? Would I find local scientists who were interested in collaborating with me? Would there be new and distinctive dangers to prepare for? Subsequent to these concerns were a whole host of questions that precede each of my trips: Would the rains hold off and the waters remain low enough to collect? Would I have enough cash to pay for everything? Would I get on the plane down with all the field gear I needed and with all the specimens for the flight back?

In order to maximize my chances for success in a new country, I try to make contact with local partners as early as possible, and I try to work with a mix of both new local personnel and trusted veterans from previous expeditions. The latter help provide my collaborators from previous expeditions an opportunity to experience new places and meet new colleagues in areas where they might otherwise never be able to visit.

For this trip, I invited Rosemary Argomedo—a young aquatic biologist from Lima who had worked with me during a 2010 expedition to southern Peru. Rosemary would be able to bring with her gillnets and seines that I had left in Lima the previous year, saving me from having to purchase new ones and from having to use much of my limited baggage allotment carrying them down from the United States.

Fortunately, as it turned out, none of my early concerns about working in Bolivia had any merit. My local partners in Santa Cruz—Kathia Rivero, Director of the Noel Kempf Mercado Natural History Museum (Spanish acronym: MNKP), and Karina Osinaga, Collection Manager of Fishes at the MNKP—were incredibly helpful and went to great lengths to ensure that I obtained all the permits I needed and that my trip went off without any problems. Moreover, they introduced me to Robert Blanco and Zulema Chavez—two very bright, enthusiastic and hard working students from Gabriel Rene Moreno Autonomous University who had volunteered to join me in the field and assist in any way required.

So, after meeting up with Rosemary, Kathia, Karina, Robert, and Zulema in Santa Cruz, we spent a about five days purchasing equipment and supplies, finding a truck to rent and an experienced driver, planning our route, and reviewing the diversity and identities of fishes in the museum. One of my primary goals during this time was also the construction of an electrofisher to facilitate our sampling of cold, high-gradient streams in the Andes. Electrofishers are standard pieces of equipment for fisheries work in North America, but factory-built units cost upwards of $2,000, and even if I could afford one, they are prohibitively heavy for air travel.

Instead, Robert, Zulema and I went shopping for a small generator, 50 meters of cable, a plug, and about 3 meters of PVC pipe. The design is simple enough: one end of the cable is plugged into the generator and the other is split into negative and positive cables, each running separately down the centers of two 1.5 meter lengths of PVC pipe. The last 10 inches of each wire is stripped and then wrapped around the end of the PVC pipe. Although we always use insulated waders and rubber gloves while electrofishing, the amperage and current of a unit like this are quite low and only a slight tingle can be felt in the water near one of the “probes.”

Finally, after all of our preparations were complete, all of us but Kathia and Karina—who were unfortunately tied to their offices—set off on a nine-day expedition to survey fish communities in rivers draining the northern and southern Andean flanks between Santa Cruz and Cochabamba.

Author: - Friday, October 14th, 2011

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