The past two months have marked a new beginning for the Caribbean Biogeography project: the Lesser Antilles. On January 13th, 2013 Team Carbio boarded the Sailing Yacht Reboot for a six-month island hopping tour of the Lesser Antilles. With our Captain Roger Jones at the helm, we will be making our way, one island at a time, to Grenada and then back north to the Bahamas bank, and hopefully ending in Cuba to pick up samples from our Cuban collaborators.
The first three weeks of our sailing expedition were spent in and around Sint Maarten, figuring out how to make sailing and arachnid collecting work together and preparing the ship for a six-month voyage. We are well on our way south, but a recap of our activities thus far is certainly in order!
Lauren and Zamira started the expedition in Saint Martin/Sint Maarten, and after a warm welcome from our Captain and crew we got to work (both on the boat and off). After meeting with natural resources and parks personnel from both sides of the island, we spent several days sorting out how to work effectively with a smaller crew than we are used to. On the French side, we got to spend some time with Julien Chalifour from the Reserve Naturelle Saint Martin. On the Dutch side we made it to some caves with assistance from the island’s resident naturalist: Mark Yokoyama. After a fruitful week of collecting we made our first trial voyage to the neighboring islands of Tintamarre and Saint Barths. Tintamarre, part of the Reserve Naturelle, was hot, dry, and of course full of spiders.
Saint Barths turned out to be less than ideal from a sailing standpoint since the anchorage was unprotected. We spent two nights standing watch while rocking and rolling. In between, we had the opportunity to meet and work with the super arachnid-knowledgeable Karl Questel who led us around the accessible areas of the largely privately owned island of mega-yachts. We then headed back to Saint Martin to pick-up Angela Chuang, make a few last minute repairs to the boat, and wait out a storm before heading to Saba.
Our next stop, Saba- “the unspoiled queen”, was fantastic. We arrived on a Sunday, which meant everything on the island was closed. Luckily I got a fantastic taxi driver to help me find the home of one of two rental car guys on the island. Everyone was incredibly friendly, and there was quite a bit of local interest in our research. The island’s trail system is impeccably maintained, so it was very easy to navigate through the habitats and collecting went very well.
From Saba we headed to ‘Statia’ to meet with collaborator Hannah Madden of STENAPA on her home turf. We had an amazing few days of carefree collecting with the immensely knowledgeable Hannah leading us around. We also made two exciting arachnid discoveries on the island- a tiny ant-mimic Salticid never recorded, and schizomids in the Quill!
Our next stop was Saint Kitts, where we bid farewell to Angela, but said hello to our new team member Ana Miller-ter Kuile. In Saint Kitts we met a local hiking enthusiast, Wayne Clarke, who led us on our spider hunts. We also parked Reboot at a dock in the marina, making it the first time Reboot had been docked since the other side of the pond! From Saint Kitts we headed over to Nevis!
Nevis was truly welcoming of arachnid research! We arrived and were given a five-star welcome by our local host- the Nevis Historical and Conservation Society. They arranged a television interview, newspaper coverage, meetings with the Directors of the Ministries, a guide from the Ministry of Agriculture, and our cameraman even offered to drive us around for collecting! The island was a great success, and we are hoping people will be excited about arachnids after they see our TV debut! Nevis was also where we bid farewell to Lauren and welcomed Anne McHugh onto our sailing expedition.
To learn more about our lives aboard Reboot, be sure to check out team-member Anne McHugh's blog
and Captain Roger's blog
Update from Anne McHugh
I arrived to the Lesser Antilles last Monday, flying into Sint Maarten and then connecting to St. Kitts. After a harrowing taxi ride, I made it to the ferry terminal and took a short ferry to the island of Nevis (Nee-vis). I had dressed for collecting which was a good thing-- Ana and Lauren picked me up in the dinghy, took my stuff to Sailboat Reboot, and we were back to the surge-y dock by dinghy within the hour to meet Almond and Kelso who helped us navigate Nevis.
We collected in various different habitat types over three days . Unlike prior trips where we spent time in the afternoon identifying in the field, working at a scope on a boat that rocks back and forth is not really possible, so I can give an estimate of what we found based on what I could identify by eye while collecting. We found a diverse array of salticids, anyphaenids, a couple of scorpions and amblypygids, Gasteracantha, Cyclosa, tetragnathids and others I am sure. We set up lots of berlese funnels at the Nevis Historical Conservation Society which will hopefully yield samples of the smaller leaf litter inhabiting spiders.
NHCS is housed in the Alexander Hamilton birthplace house. This is the permitting organization for the island and they were really helpful in allowing us to use their space on shore and in providing local expertise on where good habitats might be.
Yesterday, we spent the day preparing to sail, after dropping Lauren at the ferry terminal to begin her journey home. Departing at 9pm, we mainly motored our way to Montserrat due to poor wind conditions. Roger and Ande are preparing to go to customs to check us in right now, and I have discovered a wifi signal on the boat, although we lack cell coverage.
Fair Winds and Following Seas-- until next time.
For the last month and a half, our daily life revolved around collecting and identifying tens of thousands of eight legged animals. These creatures, large and small, determined when we slept, when we ate, where we drove and even visited us in our dreams. As we became more and more familiar with the arachnids of the Dominican Republic we also became more familiar with each other. The team grew closer, stronger and more efficient, becoming a big arachnological family. Our final departure from Santo Domingo on July 12th was bittersweet: a relief to be done and to return to creature comforts like potable tap water and wifi, yet also sad to disperse the family we formed here.
We are all leaving safe and sound, though our final tally of mishaps was 3 escaped scorpions later found in the car, the bed and Trevor’s pants, 5 flat tires, 15 wasp stings, 2 sea urchin calamities, a jellyfish sting, a case of whooping cough, a full body rash, a sprained ankle, a stubbed toe, 157 cactus spines, countless unfortunate bowel movements, and several liters of blood lost to mosquitoes. By now, Lauren, Micah, Angela and Guillaume have arrived in Berkeley, and Solanlly and Gabriel resume their work at the Museo Nacional de Historia Natural in Santo Domingo. Jenny Sparkles the dog has landed in Puerto Rico via ferry to meet her new family. Trevor, Katy, Alex and Ian remain in Puerto Rico helping to finish sorting the specimens at the University of Puerto Rico. The Lewis and Clark crew will also collect at an igneous cave system on the SE corner of Puerto Rico before returning to Portland July 25th.
Please stay tuned for updates from the team in Puerto Rico and the premier of our movie DROO7: License to Collect…Arachnids.
Our final two collecting sites in the Dominican Republic were Cachóte and Bahía de las Águilas in the SW corner of the country, nestled within the UNESCO biosphere reserve. These sites were chosen with extreme care when we realized the brevity of our remaining time and the vast number of possible sites to collect. Our aim was to target habit types that were underrepresented within our survey and relatively understudied by arachnologists.
Cachóte is a former coffee plantation turned cloud forest located on the eastern edge of Parque Nacional de Bahorouco. The park is reached via a horrific dirt road, which our Lonely Planet guidebook suggested to be attempted only by “expert rally car drivers.” Despite this warning, we pushed on late into the evening, yet were eventually thwarted by a flat tire. We were forced to spend the night at a nearby hotel, and carry on the next morning after fixing the flat. On the way to the summit “Party Car”, driven by Micah, plowed through the uneven dirt road with its undercarriage, sometimes only on two wheels and other times aided by a team of four pushing from behind (shhh don’t tell Thrifty Car Rental). Once on top, we sampled the young forest surrounding our camp. Superficially, the site seemed nothing out of the ordinary, but the moist leaf litter yielded a high density of spiders including some awesome little Oonopids. At night, the lights of our headlamps were diffused by the dense fog, which enveloped us as we hunted for orbweavers and scorpions.
We celebrated our successful descent with a trip to the breathtaking Bahía de las Águilas on the farthest SE corner of the island in Parque Nacional Jaragua. Our drive was bordered by silky blue waves crashing on white pebble sands. The final few miles to our final destination, a 14km stretch of beach was especially challenging and the” Party Car” was emptied and left behind. Even “Alpha Truck,” professionally maneuvered by Lauren, bottomed out in waist deep depressions on the road leading down a cliffside. Once there, the only thing able to distract us from arachnids was the breathtaking views and endless hordes of mosquitoes and bees. We woke at 6am to beat the heat, and among the spiky, unforgiving, vegetation and shallow caves in the desert environment we collected many focal arachnids including Loxoceles, Argiope and Amblypygi. The team finished the six-week expedition sitting on a dock, miles from the nearest living soul, watching the sunset over crystal blue waters.
Leaving Isla Cabritos, we only had a vague idea of where we would collect next. We knew that Sierra de Bahoruco was the next stop, but the park is huge and our reservation at a hotel for the next week was unexpectedly cancelled. Therefore we followed a suggestion from Gabriel De Los Santos to visit a small bird watching camp near Rabo de Gato through the north entrance of the park. We arrived expecting no rooms available and ready to camp anywhere with flat ground. Fortunately, we were welcomed with open arms by a sweet couple that proceeded to prepare five cabins. After settling in, we promptly set out to collect. The forest here is astounding; a moist valley surrounded by an expanse of untouched tropical dry forest. Rabo de Gato is fed by a natural spring, and dominated by large karst stones, deep leaf litter, and towering mahogany trees.
In the first fifteen minutes of collecting we uncovered two of the rarest spider families in the world: Lauren and Angela unearthed a humongous 2 cm long Caponiid, and Trevor found a beautiful transparent purple Drymusid under a stone. The discovery did not stop there. That night, we searched under the full moon framed by the soft walls of the valley. By the time we went to bed, we had collected specimens representing five arachnid orders including thelyphonids, four genera of scorpions, and tetragnathids in webs spanning a small stream.
We collected in Rabo de Gato for two amazing days. The majesty of the landscape, and the incredible biodiversity revitalized the weathered team. After five weeks of fieldwork, this location was a breath of fresh air and reminded us all why we love collecting arachnids. This energy will carry us through the final week of collection, focused on the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in the southwest peninsula of the country.
Following Valle Nuevo the team made an impromptu overnight stop at Ebano Verde, a small reserve of cloud forest. A wide variety of Tetragnatha wove intricate webs over pristine pools at the foot of small waterfalls. The surrounding foliage was dense with jumping spiders and other interesting arachnids making the trip worth sleeping on the floor of the ranger station, burning gas in a generator for a few hours of electricity.
Travelling to José Armando Bermudez, we ventured deeper into the central mountain range. There we hired guides and mules to pack our gear from La Cienaga to Los Tablones, a quiet camp nestled in the forest. Two team members, Ian and Trevor, split off to sample higher elevations reaching the summit of Pico Duarte, the highest point in all of the Caribbean (3,087 meters). Both groups found many valuable specimens and enjoyed camping near the sound of running water. A huge rainstorm left the team damp before packing out the next morning. Zamira and Anne left the team for their respective homes in Puerto Rico and Portland, OR.
The drive from Armando Bermudez to our current location in Parque Nacional Isla Carbritos took an exhausting nine hours. In this time we moved from the highest peak (Pico Duarte) to the lowest depression (Isla Carbritos) in the entire Caribbean in a single day . After over a week of sampling in the cool mountains, the insane heat here is a shock. The team perseveres regardless. Today four members loaded on a boat to spend the night on Isla Carbritos in the middle of the largest salt water lake in the Caribbean. The island is no doubt crawling with scorpions and other amazing eight legged friends. Those on the shore searched by a nearly full moon around the perimeter of the lake and will sample a nearby cave in the morning. Our next stop will be the north entrance of Sierra Bahoruco.
Within the last hour, Giraldo Alayon Garcia identified a spider never before recorded in the Dominican Republic, yet exists in the amber fossil record. The exciting discovery of the Plectreurys, was found in a sample expertly collected by Lauren Esposito under a rock on a hillside in Monte Cristi national park. Giraldo states, “The discovery of this spider is the highlight of my entire trip!” Giraldo, leaves the team tomorrow in high spirits and with the intention of describing the species upon his return to Cuba.
The team currently resides above 6,000 ft elevation in Parque Valle Nuevo. Arriving here was no menial task, especially for the vehicles without 4x4. Fragments of undercarriages were undoubtedly left behind as the SUVs bottomed out on the deep furrows in the dirt road steadily climbing the mountainside. Fortunately our rustic accommodations at the summit, free of electricity aside from a few hours of solar, provided a nice place to sleep and breathtaking panoramas.
The habitat here is primarily pine forest scattered with evergreen broadleaves. Each evening the temperature drops drastically to a degree where warm jackets and hot cocoa are necessities, an oddity in the Caribbean. Spider diversity here is fascinating and collection has been extraordinarily fun and fast passed. Today thirteen of the team overflowed the seats of the pickup and into the bed as we traveled deeper into the park. We collected at three localities along the way, one being the proposed center of the island marked by 4 pyramids and another legitimately named Jurassic Park. Despite an irrational fear of pterodactyls lurking above the tree fern canopy, the team proceeded to fill vials with amazing specimens. In a few hours we will return to this site for night collecting. Tomorrow, we move to a new locality.
The final two days of outreach week went smoothly: by this time, the team was well polished in conveying the awe of arachnid diversity to Dominican and Haitian children of all ages. The team’s camaraderie persevered, even after the departure of Ingi Agnarsson who left Wednesday evening to return to Puerto Rico.
On Thursday, we visited an orphanage with 25 boys in Jaibon, about an hour outside of Monte Cristi. Despite countless stories of hardship, these boys excelled in carrying out our eight-legged curriculum. Three of the boys had been found abandoned in a vehicle just a few days prior to our arrival. The habitat here was quite different, and Argiope, an araneid rarely found on our expedition was collected in the garden. At the end of the day, the boys serenaded the group with a couple of songs and a guitar.
On Friday, we lead a group of kid’s at a learning center in Monte Cristi through their neighborhood to collect. Despite poor habitat on the city streets littered with trash, we discovered many interesting specimens. Collecting was quickly followed by time using the microscopes. That afternoon, Greta Binford and Father Elmond departed for Puerto Plata after lunch, and the team returned to collecting. Night collecting was lovely, aside from millions of hungry mosquitos: after an exciting, challenging week of working with children, it was a nice change of pace to return to the relative simplicity of collecting solo. Furthermore, last night reaped fruitful samples including a new record for scorpions in the region, several elusive Solifuges and many fascinating araneids.
This week we’ve focused on educational outreach targeting underprivileged Dominican and Haitian children. So far, we’ve visited three different schools in the Puerto Plata area, and will now spend Thursday and Friday at two orphanages in Monte Cristi, near the Haitian border. We have begun each day with a brief survey to assess the children’s initial comprehension of biodiversity, arachnids and science, followed by a presentation, and then a trip to the field collecting anything with eight legs! This is the highlight for the team and the children, who have ranged from 2-18 years old. Nearly every kid, no matter age or gender, has shown tremendous excitement in collecting, searching in every shrub and under every rock, no doubt providing a new perspective to their familiar schoolyard or nearby bosque (forest). After a lunch break, we returned to look at the spiders found in the morning under microscopes, explaining anatomy and pointing out the diversity of what was collected. We also worked with the children to create a local field guide using a picture they took of a spider and their notes on the habitat and physical characteristics of the animal. These field guides were printed, laminated and left with the school as a long lasting impression.
The first school, Los Blancos, was filled with 67 Dominican and Haitian children crowded inside a concrete structure at the end of a dirt road. Despite uncomfortable conditions, each face glowed with enthusiasm, and imagination. This group was especially rambunctious and tested the abilities of our team, who succeeded wonderfully in manifesting a day of opportunity and discovery. Day two was spent at San Marcos, a middle school with better-behaved participants. These children were already on summer vacation and came to school by their own free will, resulting in a crowd of over 60. The school today was attended by a group of Haitian refugees, some fighting for Dominican citizenship. These children needed far more help than we could provide with a day of activities, yet we earnestly hope our efforts may motivate some to seek opportunities outside those immediately presented to them, such as continued education. Tomorrow we move to Monte Cristi, on the frontier of the Haitian border to work with two orphanages. The challenge of outreach is well worth it, with the hope that our efforts make some difference in the lives of these underprivileged children.