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New Plant and Insect Species Found in Tepui Paradise

Andrew Short is a National Geographic Grantee and assistant professor of
 Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the University of Kansas. An entomologist by training, Short is currently in Suriname, South America searching for aquatic insects to study patterns of freshwater biodiversity that will inform both science and conservation. 

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Before I write any further, I want to introduce the excellent group of folks we have had on Tafelberg: We have three two-person teams, one each covering plants (Fabian Michelangeli and Julian Aguirre from the New York Botanical Garden), frogs and other amphibians and reptiles (Paul Obouter and Vanessa Kadosoe from the National Zoological Collection of Suriname), and aquatic insects (myself and Devin Bloom from the University of Kansas who also is also moonlighting collecting fish).

We are fortunate to have an amazing support team of five individuals of trailcutters, assistants, and a cook who allows us to focus all of the precious time we have on this mountain doing science.

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Tafelberg Team 2013: L-R: Fabian, Bert, Paul, Vanessa, Julian, Devin, Andrew, Hermina, Spears, Mani, Uwawa. Photo by Fabian Michelangeli.

We’ve spent several days exploring the area around our second camp at Caiman Creek. The botanists pursued a route into the nearby “Arrowhead Basin”, a large triangular depression in the middle of the tepui. After they establishing a trail, Devin and I followed them the next day, through the forest and down a narrow rocky chute into the basin. The sandstone walls of the basin in this area are precisely vertical and extremely tall.

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Andrew and Devin collecting insects along the south wall of Arrowhead Basin. Photo by Fabian Michelangeli.

It is along these walls that we made a few exciting discoveries: Fabian found a few rare plants he had been searching for—one of these species had not been seen since its first collection back in 1944! Literally a moment after he was celebrating his find not 20 feet away, I stumbled across a small brown blob crawling on a wet rock face.

But this was no ordinary brown blob—it was a new genus and species of aquatic beetle! I had collected on a different mountain in Suriname last year, but it is a rare find and I was excited to find it here too.

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Moment of discovery: In his left hand, Fabian clutches a species of Melastomataceae, endemic to this mountain, that had only ever been seen once before in 1944. Photo by Andrew Short.

 Not to be outdone, Julian came bounding back down the trail clutching a large, spiny plant- a bromeliad. He did not immediately recognize the species, though it had very distinctive flowers. Was it a new species? Too soon to tell, but maybe. At the very least it is a new record for Suriname. Next time, I’ll cover more of the exciting new insects we’ve turned up…

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Julian inspects an unusual species of bromeliad, that is at least new to Suriname and may be a new species. Photo by Andrew Short.
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Looking out from the south rim of Tafelberg. The nearest road in this direction is more than 250 miles away in Brazil. Photo by Andrew Short.

NEXT: Tiptoeing Across a Raging River (On the Edge of a 600-Foot Drop)