Work has gotten more interesting the past few weeks. Although I have still been diligently entering checklists, I have also gotten to do a few new things that are more botanical. (Considering the work I do with the checklists botany just because I am working with plant names is a pretty big stretch.) I have already written about mounting and preparing specimens for archival in my last work update; I have continued that work a number of days this month.
The whole sequence of events leading to getting to go on a field trip and collect specimens started three Mondays ago, just after getting back from Isabela with Kaitlyn. As you recall, the boat broke down and we got back to Puerto Ayora two hours late, just in time for these monthly biodiversity meetings we are supposed to go. (These monthly meetings is always really bizarre since we are the only volunteers that go and we spend the whole time sitting there listening to things that don’t concern our work, though once in a while they are interesting.) After the meeting Patty comes up to me and says (in Spanish), “I need to speak with you.” In any English office setting, these words are ominous. I’m sure the Spanish translation doesn’t have the same connotations, but the worry was there. I showed up two hours late the second week in a row, and I didn’t tell anyone I was going away. Plus, I had already used the “the boat broke down” excuse.
My fears were unrealized, though. Patty actually just wanted me to help prepare soil samples for Rodolfo. This involved picking tiny bleached and broken snail shells out of the soil so the Galapagos quarantine officials don’t get mad at us, then autoclaving the samples, wrapping them with parafilm and packing them in bins for shipping.
This task lasted about three days (there were 106 samples) but fortunately I had help from Kaitlyn one day and Eleyna, a volunteer from Spain who is working on a pollen study, two days. All of these soil samples were from Floreana. At the beginning of the year there was a large project to catalogue and inventory the biodiversity on Floreana Island. Rodolfo also took soil samples at various elevations and locations on the island. The goal of the study is to compare the soil chemical composition with the flora that it supports.
Anyway, Rodolfo and Patty were pleased with my work on this project, and I suspect it built up my reputation as a reliable assistant. Last Tuesday, Patty asked me if I could help with a field trip. Of course, I said, incredibly excited at the prospect of getting to do not only real science, but field science in the Galapagos.
Rodolfo and I ended up going out in the field and doing a transect of the island, collecting samples approximately every 100m in elevation. The idea was to be able to compare the soil chemistry, the elevation, and the plants growing in the area (i.e. what species the soil can support.) Adding Santa Cruz can allow the comparison of two islands of different age.
Patty was not able to go because she was busy finishing up other things before she leaves in September for Cambridge. She is attending some sort of training event, but she will also be working at the herbarium there–the herbarium that happens to contain the specimens that Darwin collected while in the islands in 1835. Rodolfo is leaving the Galapagos for good on Saturday (the same day as us), so without me he wouldn’t have been able to do this extra component of the study.
I had learned how to collect plant specimens in my plant taxonomy class in Ghana, but I had never actually done real collecting before. Patty spent about ten minutes showing me what to do. This gave her only about enough time to go through the motions rather than teach me anything. We got all the supplies ready, and we were ready to go, Rodolfo and I, last Thursday morning.
I was pretty confident that I knew what to do until I got out into the field. The first day we were planning on driving along the Puerto Ayora/Baltra highway and stopping to collect along the side of the road. (We had to walk a couple dozen meters away from the shoulder to avoid interference for both the soil and plant samples). We got to our first point, just out of town (27 meters above sea level). Rodolfo cut a trail with a machete and I followed close behind. He chose the site and started to work collecting his soil samples, leaving me to gather plants. At this point, I realized I had no idea what to do.
Do I collect every species I see, or just the ones I can’t identify? Are these specimens just for identification, or are they for identification and accession into the herbarium? If the same species comes up at each site, should I keep collecting it? How big should the specimens be? What about species that I can’t get an ideal specimen for (i.e. with fruits or flowers)? Rodolfo usually finished well before me; should I work quickly so he doesn’t have to wait as long at the risk of missing some species, or should I take as much time as I need to collect and mount the specimens properly? Patty told me to collect every species from a three to five meter radius, but the soil samples were taken from a larger radius than that; should I extend the radius? Should I avoid collecting the cacti because they grow so slowly and cannot regenerate quickly? (A 10 year-old candelabra cactus in Patty’s office is only about as tall as my index finger).
For all of these questions I eventually got an answer, even if I had to make the answer up myself. In retrospect, it was shocking that I ended up being the botanist on this trip. I knew at least as many species as Rodolfo, and more about plant collecting. The excitement of getting to put my name on the collections, and eventually getting to see that same name in the database and herbarium was tempered by the shock that I was either going to sink or swim. It was a steep learning curve; the best I had to work with was just imitating what I had seen from other specimens in the herbarium in terms of how to fold the newspaper that goes around each sample, or labeling the newspaper with the collection number. Another difficulty was that we were doing this quickly in the field. Deb commented later about how when she was collecting plants to work on, she would put them in little bags with ice and stick it in a cooler. Then, the plants would stay fresh and turgid until they got back into the lab and could arrange them nicely in the plant press. Instead, I was putting plants into a plastic garbage bag, and then trying to press them in the bed of a pickup truck in the wind (and/or mist) on the side of a highway.
The first day I collected 64 specimens from six sites. The first few were in the dry zone. Of course, in such a harsh environment many plants have spines, thorns, or prickles (botanically, these three terms refer to different and distinct types of sharp defensive protrusions on plants). Among other things, I got cactus spines in the seat of my pants, got covered in tick trefoil (Desmodium) stickers, learned first-hand how the genus Bastardia got its name, and had the best day of my summer.
The work was hard, though. I tried to go as fast as I could, but Rodolfo was still always waiting for me and I still felt like the specimens I was pressing could have been prepared better. But Rodolfo was pleased and very appreciative of my work.
The original plan was to drive along the road on Thursday, and then hike even higher on Friday. This had to be amended when by Thursday night we had only gone halfway down the road. The highway crested about 200 meters higher than Rodolfo had thought, which mean we had to collect from more sites. A third day (which turned out to be last Tuesday) had to be added to our campaign.
Thursday we worked long and hard. We didn’t get finished until well after 6 p.m. We were convinced that Friday would be a shorter day. Although we had one more site to collect from than the day before, we (mostly me, as Rodolfo was already an expert at his work) had figured out ways to make things run more efficiently. Furthermore, the southern side of the island, where we had started, was almost all agricultural zone along the road. This made it near impossible to find even moderately undisturbed areas. The north side is all National Park, so it should go much faster.
Even after collecting and pressing all the plants and getting back to the Station after dark, I wasn’t finished with the day’s work. The plants needed to go into the drying oven while still in the press. Before putting them in, though, I had to open up the plant press in order to put a sheet of cardboard between each of the newspaper-wrapped specimens. When in the field, it was okay to put a handful of specimens between the cardboard so as to minimize space, but to properly ventilate and dry they need to be separated by cardboard. Also, I tried to neaten any specimens that may have leaves or twigs sticking out of the edge of the plant press. Although it sounds complicated, it didn’t take all that long. I was determined to do my best, but I took the standard to be on par with the various specimens I had had to mount in the herbarium.
Rodolfo was so pleased with my help that he offered to take me out to dinner at the kioskos (in addition to buying me a snack at the bakery in Bellavista). We really hit it off. The first impression we (myself, Kaitlyn, and Ashley) had of him was this strange man that came to use our washing machine. We have a washing machine in the back of our house, and Rodolfo would always come over to use it on the weekends. We joke about when one of us had a load in, the machine dinged to signal that our load was complete, and within a minute of that happening, Rodolfo was knocking on our door telling us our laundry was done (so we could remove our clothes to make room for his.)
As we continued over dinner the conversations we had started in the field, I was excited to hear about his work at the station and background. I even learned that he was leaving the station in order to take a job in Niger, a mere two countries away from Ghana! Apparently in March the station was basically bankrupt, but that’s another story.
Friday morning we were back out along the main road. It turned out that Friday was a national holiday and we had the day off. For me though, getting to go out in the field was far better a treat than any tourist attraction on Santa Cruz would be. I gladly treated Friday as another work day, and we were off into the field.
Unfortunately, our expectations of the day being shorter turned out to be wrong. We ended up spending even more time in the field, not getting back until 7 pm. We didn’t even get to sample all of the sites. Instead, we reduced the number of sampling sites on the leeward (north) side of the island while spacing them apart moer to accommodate. The leeward side of the island is much drier. The dry zone started as high as 400m, so our sampling sites turned out to be more homogenous, at least from a climactic standpoing.
I think the reason it took so long is that instead of spending time driving and looking for a site, we had to spend more time cutting brush to get a sufficient distance off the road. I wonder if I was becoming more thorough too in my surveys. Species richness in any given site was higher on the second day compared to the first day, likely due to the fact that the sampling sites on Friday were mainly in undisturbed National Park land, while on Thursday we collected mainly from the agricultural district. In any case, I collected more specimens on the second day.
After the last site as it was getting dark, Rodolfo decided to stop at one of the two mines on the island to look at soil profiles. I was more interested by the grand view of the island. I had already been to this mine with Sebastian Cruz on my half-day petrel expedition, but this time the view was certainly better. The mine faced north, and from the top you could see all of the horthern part of Santa Cruz, Baltra, North Seymour, and the two Daphne islands. To me, Baltra and North Seymour looked just like the United Kingdom, at least in terms of shape.
I’d like to say my plant collecting skills were improving. Unfortunately, on Friday it was windier and I had a good deal of trouble managing the newspaper and plants on the bed of the pickup truck. Another difficulty I came across was rescuing a sad, wilted, specimen I had collected on Thursday but had forgotten to mount. The plant got stuck in a plastic bag. Hopefully when it dries, nobody will be able to tell how careless I was.
By the end of Friday we had sampled 12 sites, six each day, and Rodolfo again took me out to eat at the kioskos. Our highest sample was at about 620 meters, but the island gets as high as 870. To get the last two or three sample points, it became necessary to add an extra day to the collecting, a day of hiking.
The plan was to go to Medialuna, a small hill north of Bellavista on the way to Cerro Crocker. I asked Rodolfo why we weren’t climbing Cerro Crocker, and he told me the trails were confusing and that we could get lost. This seemed odd to me. Kaitlyn and I had been to the top of Cerro Crocker, and while there was one confusing fork in the path, the rest of it was straightforward. (Rodolfo finally straightened out the ambiguity over the split in the trail that we encountered on our hike: the left turned out to be the trail to Puntudo, the right to Cerro Crocker; the map at the park entrance was not to scale, and the family we met on the way down was wrong.) Eventually I mentioned that I had been to the top of Cerro Croker. His whole demeanor changed, going from reluctant to go to gung-ho. After all, I could be the tour guide! (I also found out later that he was under the misimpression that you needed a guide to climb the mountain, but this didn’t seem to be the reason why he hadn’t planned on going).
Thanks to me and my prior trip to Cerro Crocker we were able to collect about 200 meters higher than we otherwise would have. I didn’t speak up sooner because I assumed that since he had lived here longer (over a year) and that he was Spanish-speaking he would know the area better. Although I have packed a lot of traveling into the last three months, I assumed that any Spanish-speaker would have a better knowledge of the area since he or she would better be able to communicate with the locals. I underestimated myself or perhaps over-estimated the generic Spanish-speaker.
The hiking was not bad, other than the trail being as muddy as it was before. Instead of a box to carry all of our supplies including the plant presses, we carried everything in day packs. I got to carry all the plant specimens in a really cool garment bag-sized pouch that I could put over my shoulder. We made good time getting to the top, where we had lunch. (Well, Rodolfo had lunch–I’d left all of my food back in Santa Cruz. Fortunately I wasn’t hungry anyway).
It was quite windy on top of Cerro Crocker. Although the wind made it quite difficult for me to straighten the sheets of newspaper and properly and carefully arrange the plants to be pressed on them, it also blew away the fog, allowing for stunning views of the entire island. To the north, you could see Baltra and North Seymour, even more breathtaking than my previous sighting from the mine. To the east was El Garrapatero, the flamingo lagoon and swimming beach the two girls and I visited in late July. Looking south, back the way we came, various towns and villages formed a connect-the-dots pattern that ended with the ocean.
Of course as fast as the fog blew away, it came back again. As Rodolfo and I sat there at lunchtime, I would turn around at various intervals and the view would sometimes be clear, sometimes partly-cloudy, and sometimes I could hardly see fifty yards in front of me.
On our descent we began collecting. This was convenient for two reasons. First, we didn’t have to carry the samples up the mountain and then back down again. Second, we could judge the amount of time we had better. We collected at the various sites: 860 meters at nearly the top of the mountain, then 820, 780, and 680. Like the first two days, I was able to intimately see the zonation patterns that are so evident in the Galapagos. And the zonation doesn’t just include the roughest divisions of dry-transition-humid, but at each site I would see some new species that hadn’t been at the last site. I really felt like I was able to understand the Galapagos on a new, much more observant level.
We got back at a normal time again. On the descent I acted as if I had the most interesting toy in the world. Although it was my last week in a rare, unique ecosystem, my eyes were glued to the GPS screen watching our elevation slowly decrease.
Once we got back, I had the normal task of loading all the plants into the dryer, as well as the soil samples we had collected. The drying oven at the station is a small chamber acessible from the outside. It was handmade by a previous scientist: two shelves surrounded by heat lights. Rodolfo and I could barely fit all of our plant and soil specimens into the drying oven. Throughout the three days I had collected about 200 plants, and Rodolfo had 48 bags of soil (16 sites times three samples per site).
This was the last major project of my summer. The next few days were spent tying up loose ends, and inputting the data in my field notebook to a spreadsheet and getting things organized for when I left that Saturday. I was really happy though. Going out in the field to do botany was what I had been hoping to do every since getting to the Station. Although I made sure to keep telling myself that the most important thing is that I was useful, I still made sure to use every oppertunity possible to mention my desire to get my hands dirty. Three months, and three mud and seed-covered clothing days later, I got my wish, and it was the best time I’d had all summer.