Notes from the Field

Notes from the Field Archive

wintergreenYUNNAN 2006

August 11, 2006
First Day in the Field

Over the past eight years, the Academy has sent eleven scientific expeditions to Yunnan Province in southwestern China in order to document the region’s stunning biodiversity. While all of the trips have been challenging in their own way, this current trip will be the most complicated by far because of the terrain we are hoping to survey. On our past trips, we have not been able to explore areas higher than 3,800 meters, since the high elevation habitats in this region are very difficult—and often dangerous—to access. On this trip however, with the help of two mountaineers, we are hoping to survey the habitats around a permanent snowfield at an elevation of over 4,000 meters on Mt. Kawa Karpu. These habitats are likely to house a number of species that have never before been documented by scientists. They are also very fragile, so we have decided to split ourselves into two smaller groups and send one group at a time to minimize our impact on the land. If all goes according to plan, the entomologists on our team will hike up the steep slopes of Mt. Kawa Karpu next week, and the botanists will follow them about ten days later.

For the next few days, the two mountaineers on the team will be scoping out the trail that leads to the snowfield to determine whether or not it will be safe for us to traverse. In the mean time, the rest of us have hiked to a lake near the Heipu Pass, which sits at about 3,600 meters, to acclimatize ourselves to higher altitudes and do some initial collecting. I have already collected a number of plants that I didn’t see on previous expeditions, including some blue gentians and small, creeping wintergreens. I have also collected a great deal of trash. Although we are technically in a nature reserve, the understanding of how to treat a reserve in China is still evolving. Hopefully we can lead by example while we are here.

- Peter Fritsch, Botanist


Spider web August 16, 2006
Onward and Upward

We must be an interesting sight: 45 porters carrying scientific equipment and camping gear; four cooks carrying whole pork legs; half a dozen entomologists armed with magnifying lenses and boxes of cornstarch; a professional photographer hauling a huge backpack full of camera equipment; and two mountaineers; all making their way along an incredibly narrow trail lined with steep drop-offs. Today was the second day of our journey up to the snowfield on Mt. Kawa Karpu, and after hiking for a full day and gaining about a kilometer in elevation, we were all ready to stop and set up camp for the night. Unfortunately, our dinner consisted of pork fat, cabbage, and blood sausage—not your neighborhood Hunan restaurant!

After dinner, I went out in search of tiny spiders that build webs along the bottom of fallen logs or rocks. Just 1-2 millimeters long, these spiders are often overlooked by entomologists in the field. With the help of a little cornstarch, however, they are relatively easy to find. The white powder, when puffed into likely spider habitats, sticks to any webs that it happens to hit, brightly illuminating the webs in the glow of a headlamp. Within a few hours, I found dozens of these tiny spiders, at least two of which appear to be new species.

- Jeremy Miller, Entomologist


August 19, 2006
Snow at Last

I have been waiting for this day ever since the Academy’s China Natural History Project was first established nine years ago. Today, after much planning and preparation, I finally made it to a permanent snowfield above 4,000 meters. I did my dissertation research on a group of beetles that live along the boundaries of permanent snowfields, so I’ve been itching to look for beetles up here for years. This afternoon, after hiking for about an hour and half to the edge of the snowfield, I was rewarded for the long wait. The very first rock I turned over revealed a Nebria beetle, a member of the genus I was hoping to find. A few minutes later, one of our guides found another Nebria beetle, and as soon as I saw it, with its long, slender legs and narrow body, I knew it was a new species.

These beetles hide under rocks along the borders of permanent snowfields during the day, coming out under the cover of darkness to feed on other insects. Copious amounts of food are dropped at their doorstep each day, as air rising up the mountain carries small insects across the snowfields. When the relatively warm air crosses the snow, it cools and dips, dropping a number of the insects in its currents onto the snow. I would have loved to stay for the feeding frenzy tonight, but the guides told us that a downpour was on its way, so we headed back to camp.

- Dave Kavanaugh, Entomologist


Snow lotus August 29, 2006
Adaptations to the Cold

When I woke up this morning and saw the clear sky, I knew this was the day that I would finally get above 4,000 meters. The guides were a bit less enthusiastic than I was about the prospect of another day of climbing, but after a grueling three hours, we made it to the top of one of the snowfields, reaching a height of 4,050 meters. The plants here all have special adaptations for surviving in cold weather. Most grow very low to the ground, enabling them to avoid the wind and absorb the relative warmth of the sun-baked soil. When the soil is frozen, their roots are unable to absorb water from the ground, so they must be resistant to drought as well. To combat water evaporation, many plants have very small leaves with protective waxy or hairy surfaces. So far, I’ve seen two species of high-elevation ferns (an unexpected find), as well as gentians, saxifrages, heaths, louseworts, and wintergreens. One of these wintergreens is may be a new species. Although its berries look nearly identical to those of a species just down-slope, its more pointed leaves and creeping growth form are distinctly different.

I would love to get up even higher, but I can’t climb any further without crampons. One of our mountaineers did manage to get up to 4,700 meters yesterday, however, where she found an incredible snow-lotus (Saussurea laniceps). This plant has feather-like leaves that cover the stem, insulating it against the cold air. The flowers are deeply nested in pits at the top of the stem, and the stem itself is completely hollow, creating a cavity of relatively warm air.

- Peter Fritsch, Botanist


mite harvestman August 31, 2006
Daddy Short Legs

For the past few days, we’ve been collecting in the lush Dulong Valley while the botanists explore the slopes of Mt. Kawa Karpu. Today, we hiked for several hours from the small hillside town of Maku down to Qinlangdang, another small town along the shores of the Dulong River. After snacking on cucumbers to quench our thirst, we walked another kilometer to the banks of a waterfall close to the Myanmar border, where Dave and I started sifting through leaf litter and beating vegetation in search of beetles and spiders.

Several patches of leaf litter yielded a small arachnid that looked like a tick or a mite but was actually a very primitive member of the harvestmen order, a group often referred to as the Daddy Long Legs. Unlike most other members of this order, which have evolved long, spindly legs that help them pursue prey or evade predators, this smaller, slower, more cryptic harvestman must seek protection under the cover of leaf litter. This new species is the first member of the suborder Cyphophthalmi documented from China.

- Jeremy Miller, Entomologist


Radama Islands August 31, 2006
Snowfield Nostalgia

I am already missing the pristine habitat of the snowfield. Over the course of the five days we spent at our high-elevation camp, we did some of the best collecting in the history of the project. On the first morning at the camp, we set 52 pitfall traps by sinking plastic cups filled with water and formalin into the ground and adding a bit of detergent to cut the surface tension of the liquid. Over the next five days, thousands of small insects and arachnids made their way into the traps, providing us with months’ worth of work once we return to the Academy’s labs.

We are now back down in the valley, where the beetle collecting has been poor, but I’m still not giving up on finding more beetles. After dinner, we set out on a night collecting trip, despite the hesitancy of our guides, who were worried about snakes. We crossed a long and rickety rope bridge and made our way toward the waterfall where we had collected earlier in the afternoon, but the beetles were scarce. When we got back to the house where we were staying, a party powered by homemade local brew was in full swing. Cold and exhausted, I went into the house and curled up on a hard bench to attempt to get some sleep. Our sleeping bags never made it to Qinlangdang, so I pulled some mosquito netting around me (the region is ripe with malaria-bearing mosquitoes) and settled in for what I’m sure will be the worst night of the trip so far. The funny thing is, while I’m wishing I was back up on the mountain, Jeremy is having his best day of the trip. That mite harvestman he found is a really special discovery.

- Dave Kavanaugh, Entomologist