Expedition Diary: Inside a Rain Forest Quest

March 5, 2004

Can a new high-tech tool predict extinction-prone areas? Back from Brazil, biologist Stuart Pimm recounts the unpredictable Brazilian bird quest that put the tool to the test—and reveals what it's really like on a National Geographic research expedition.

The rain forest in Rio's backyard originally covered an area nearly twice the size of Texas. Beset by human sprawl, Brazil's Atlantic forest today covers less than 7 percent of its original extent.

As one of "the Earth's richest and most threatened reservoirs of plant and animal life"—as National Geographic magazine puts it—the forest is a conservation "hotspot." As such, many of its native species are close to extinction.

Conservationists want to save these species by protecting the most richest, most vulnerable areas of the forest—the hotspots within the hotspot. But first they have to find them. Biologists Maria Alice dos Santos Alves and Stuart Pimm are pioneering a new computer program that may do just that.

The software uses satellite maps and data on animal sightings to predict where vulnerable species should be found. If it works, it should be a powerful tool for uncovering biologically important areas that would otherwise go overlooked.

So far the program has proved effective, but it hasn't yet passed what might be called its final exam: the search for the elusive gray-winged cotinga.

Discovered in 1980, the little greenish bird has only been sighted on two mountaintops along a treacherous ridge outside Rio de Janeiro. Recently the software pinpointed nearby peaks as likely gray-winged cotinga habitat.

To put the software to the test, Alves, Pimm, and others traveled deep into the rain forest in pursuit of proof that the birds are where the computer said they should be.

What follows is Pimm's expedition journal—a rare glimpse into the rarely glamorous, always unpredictable world of National Geographic-supported research expeditions.

Prologue

All adventures end at precisely the same point.

Continued on Next Page >>


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