Biologists Document Rich Plant Life of Guyana to Aid Conservation

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"Everything you need" includes tons of food, fuel, medical supplies, spools of fishing line, machetes for cutting trails through jungle, axe heads, ropes and spikes for climbing cliff faces and trees, kerosene, and equipment for preserving botanical samples. Supplies and equipment are hauled upriver in dugout canoes and carried into the forest.

Moving through uncharted territory is a major challenge. Waterways become narrower and shallower, blocked by fallen trees, logjams, and sandbars.

Travel on land can be even more complicated. "There are no trails, of course," said Clarke. "Moving around is a matter of hacking your way with a machete and stumbling, climbing, or sliding over whatever obstacles present themselves.

"Keeping track of where the heck you are is tough in the forest," he said. "There are no landmarks, it's hard to see very far, and whatever maps are available are about as reliable as those that say 'Here be dragons.' We climb trees several times a day to get a [global positioning system] reading and re-adjust the compass heading."

Canopy Climbing

Plant collection under such circumstances is slow and painstaking, done in battle with a multitude of what Clarke calls "creepy-crawly-stingy-bitey creatures," which include wasps, flesh-eating maggots, mosquitoes, snakes, and piranha, to name a few.

Before the plants reach the molecular labs of modern science, they're collected with hand clippers and preserved in newspaper. Many are collected from the very top of the forest canopy, requiring iron spikes, extendable pole clippers, and a fair amount of nerve and tree-climbing skill to reach.

Although the collecting methods may be similar to those of explorers 200 years ago, the eventual results are high-tech. Information collected by Clarke and others is compiled in a database, adding to an extensive amount of information that has been collected over the past 20 years by the Biological Diversity of the Guianas program of the Smithsonian Institution.

Scientists use this information to generate computer models that can help address one of the major environmental challenges of the 21st century: how to balance conservation goals with those of national and international development.

While policymakers wrestle with the knotty issues of sustainable management, Clarke is attending to the last-minute plans for his upcoming trip—this time during rainy season.

"Normally the best season for plant collection is when the plants are flowering or fruiting. Sometimes it's the only way you can identify them," he said. "But during rainy season you'll find different things."

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