Contributed by Ken Mallory
A glossy white commuter plane with a blue hood and red and blue racing stripes gave me the bird's eye view I was hoping for. I was on the final leg of a journey that began in Boston, Massachusetts and was ending now as our six-seat Cessna flew over a nearly treeless landscape etched with cattle paths, solitary farms called fazendas, and isolated water holes. As we approached our destination, an oasis called the Fazenda Rio Negro loomed just a few hundred feet below. We came to rest on a grassy runway in the middle of the Pantanal, the Portuguese word for swamp and the largest tropical wetland on the planet.
Thanks to the grant support of the Ford Motor Company Foundation, Earthwatch teamed up with Conservation International to establish a Conservation Research Initiative (CRI) in the Pantanal. Earthwatch's CRIs take a collaborative approach to ecosystem conservation by working with local communities, environmental organizations, government, and scientists in different fields to form an effective plan. For volunteers like me, the Pantanal CRI offers the chance to live out our Humphrey Bogart fantasies--fighting our way though the tall grasses reminiscent of those seen in the movie the African Queen, not to escape World War I Germans, but to find clumps of pink apple snail eggs hidden in the rushes.
As part of an August team to census and sometimes tag snakes, frogs, lizards, and birds of the Rio Negro area of the Pantanal, I had joined a group of eleven Americans, South Africans, Australians, and Brazilians. Our team leader was Ellen Wang, a diminutive and plucky Brazilian PhD student at the University of Sao Paulo state. Ellen was a no-nonsense but fun-loving co-principal investigator of a research project designed to identify the area's "herps" or reptiles and amphibians. Very little had been done to-date to document amphibians and reptiles in this area of the Rio Negro.
Described by Ellen as "a giant sponge" absorbing water that runs from river headwaters in the surrounding highlands, the lowland Pantanal is only 300 feet above sea level and extends over 80,000 square miles through Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay, in a wetland the size of Kansas. This sponge absorbs rains and river overflow during the rainy season that begins around the month of November and ends about April or May providing a rich source of food for the spectacular wildlife that lives there.
Just in the area around the Fazenda Rio Negro alone, researchers had already identified 25 species of snakes, 11 kinds of lizards, 20 amphibians, and over 400 varieties of birds, and we would see some of the most remarkable of these as we patrolled the river and surrounding ponds. To inventory the snakes, frogs, turtles, and lizards, Ellen and co-principal investigator snake scientist Vanda Lucia Ferreira had us go on daily collections of animals caught in buckets. Among our treasures were the jungle runner or whiptail Ameiva (a lizard), the yellow striped whip snake, the rainbow lizard, the toad-headed turtle, and the dwarf teid (another kind of lizard). Most spectacular of all, however, was the yellow anaconda.
Although it is not the largest of the three species of anacondas, the yellow anaconda (Eunectes notaeus) is big enough, with females stretching over 12 feet long. Noted for their ambush style of hunting, anacondas squeeze their prey to death, dragging them if necessary into the water and then swallowing them whole. Our team of Earthwatch volunteers watched Vanda as she deftly maneuvered a recently collected specimen with a Bo Peep shepherd's staff onto an examining table. She then measured and weighed it with volunteer help, cleaned it of ticks, and inserted a microchip under its skin. Future researchers would now be able to identify it after its release by reading the chip with a scanning device.
We worked hard during our all too short window on wildlife in the Pantanal. In the end, in addition to the scores of amphibians and reptiles, we had recorded over 150 species of birds. We viewed the antics of hyacinth macaws, the largest and possibly noisiest of the parrot family whose worldwide population was once reduced to 3,000 birds. We spied on six-inch pigmy owls roosting above our fazenda. We watched as female rheas, the South American answer to the ostrich, threw infertile eggs out onto the road advertising for a mate.
Aloft again in a Cessna on its way back to the Brazilian city of Campo Grande, I tried to memorize the maze of ponds and gallery forests I was leaving behind. It was nearly the end of the dry season and the extension of the Rio Negro that ran past the Fazenda was beginning to disappear. I felt good about playing a small part in helping scientists understand a threatened landscape. But I knew I had only seen part of the story. The now separate freshwater and brackish ponds that dotted the landscape would merge with the coming rains to form a huge expanse of water, and the wildlife would flock to the dry land that remained.
The flooded Pantanal beckons.