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Expedition Diary: Inside a Rain Forest Quest

Stuart Pimm
for National Geographic News

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.

Thirty seconds into the hot shower, a stream of dirty water runs down the drain. It takes with it the mud, changing my skin from blotchy gray to pink, uncovering the forgotten scrapes and cuts, and exterminating the thriving ecosystem of bacteria and fungi—each with its own distinct and pungent smell—to which my skin has been playing host.

This is exactly when one has the first dangerous notion that the last days or weeks might have been fun. Shortly thereafter, selective memory kicks in, and it's only a matter of time before one has signed on for another punishing, exhilarating expedition.

December 2002

Most adventures start with packing one's gear and heading to the airport. I correct myself: This is not how this adventure begins.

The search in remote and unexplored Brazilian mountaintops for one of the world's rarest birds begins in my comfortable, air-conditioned Duke University laboratory in North Carolina.

Professor Maria Alice dos Santos Alves, of the State University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and I are sitting in front of a large computer monitor. On screen is a satellite image of the State of Rio de Janeiro.

With layers of data superimposed, the image tells us that one of the biologically richest areas of the planet has been barely explored. Someone has to go—not "because it's there"—but precisely because in short order it may not be.

The software also predicts where we should find the gray-winged cotinga (Tijuca condita). Actually finding the cotinga—the purpose of Maria Alice's upcoming expedition—would be a huge step toward establishing the use of computer models as viable tools for determining what areas should be protected.

Wednesday, December 3, 2003

After a brief August trip to Rio to scout locations by helicopter, Maria Alice, having secured a National Geographic research grant, invited me to join her expedition in December—mid-summer in the Southern Hemisphere.

One afternoon, I load my backpack as low black rain clouds blow across the North Carolina sky. Just like a summer's day in the north of England where I grew up and where I learned my field craft.

Friday, December 5, 2003

Outside Rio de Janeiro, Maria Alice, her graduate student Alline Storni Rocha, and I lunch improbably in a luxurious home on the Fazenda Itatiba ("Itatiba plantation") high in a valley a few miles from our intended camp.

The helicopter we've secured to take us into the bush cannot carry everything we need in one trip, but will ferry the team and equipment in short trips between the fazenda and the camp.

I just wish the pilot wasn't wearing shiny black shoes, pressed black trousers, and a white, starched shirt with epaulettes that vaguely suggest a naval uniform. I fly on helicopter surveys all over the world each year. Most pilots wear fatigues or tattered shorts, repudiate fashion, and have flight helmets that sport small insignia that hint of a previous life ("Da Nang," for example) that one never brings up in conversation.

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