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Lake Tota and more paramo

17 Jan 2017


Finca SanPedro Hostel on the outskirts of Sogamoso.

It was dark when we arrived last night, so we didn’t have a chance to really see the beautiful Finca SanPedro Hostel. The house has a number of nice rooms for guests and the grounds were beautifully planted and maintained.  Chickens, peacocks, vegetable gardens, a yoga studio, and four friendly dogs all added to the charm.

Felipe Velasco, director of the Foundation Montecito, graciously agreed to take us to a small lake in the paramo above Lake Tota.  Our goal was to assess the potential of the lake for sediment coring, and potentially collect more surface samples from the associated wetlands.  However, before embarking on our trip we needed to purchase a few more supplies from a local hardware store in Sogamoso, including some PVC pipe and some wooden boards to secure our inflatable boats together for a coring platform.  The folks at the hardware store were fantastic, providing supplies and assistance as we mounted the pipe and boards on top of our car.  Furthermore, about half way through the process, they provided us with free coffee and delicious empanadas. And they gave us free hats and windbreakers with their logo!  As Jason commented, “it is strange that the best empanadas I’ve had were from a hardware store.”


Jaime Escobar, Mark Brenner, and Jason Curtis securing the PVC and wood to the top of the car.


Lake Tota, the largest lake in Colombia. According to legend, there is a large monster known as diablo ballena (“devil whale”) that lives in the lake.


Onions growing in the Lake Tota watershed.

The drive to the paramo took about an hour and half, but along the way we got see Lake Tota and the town of Aquitania. Lake Tota is the largest natural lake in Colombia and lies at an elevation of about 10,000 feet.  As we crossed into the lake’s watershed, we were immediately hit by the smell of onions.  Most of the area around the lake and the surrounding hillslope is covered in onions; in fact, according to Felipe, the area produces more than 90% of the onions consumed in Colombia. The lake is also used for fish aquaculture, and along with fertilizer runoff from the onion farms, environmental degradation of the lake is of considerable concern. Apparently for every ton of chicken poop that comes in by truck, a ton of onions goes out.


Church in Aquitania, with the “surfing” Jesus.

Furthermore, the introduction of rainbow trout into Lake Tota likely led to considerable changes in food-web structure, and the extinction of a species of catfish, known as greasefish (Rhizosomichthys totae) that was endemic to the lake. An all to common story: invasive species + human impacts like eutrophication = extinction.

The town of Aquitania borders the lake, and we had to weave our way through it to reach a steep dirt road that led up into the paramo. A small town with obvious economic hardship, the central square of Aquitania is dominated by the church like in many of the small Colombian towns that we have seen.  On top of the church is a large statue of Jesus standing on a boat, although because the boat is small it looks like Jesus is surfing.  The road up into the paramo was in bad shape so we went slow, but we eventually arrived at the small lake that we hoped to reach.


Lake Aquitania.


Jaime sinks through the floating peat as they try to get the boat onto the lake. He is very good at finding the soft spots on paramo peatlands.


Jaime and Jason on Lake Aquitania.


Surface sediment core from the lake.


As we were packing up our gear, we had two visitors that we very interested in what we were up to.

Lake Aquitania, as we called it, was beautiful. Surrounded by paramo, including lots of frailejón (Espeletia sp.), the lake is bordered by extensive wetland in places. Several nearby depressions also contain wetlands. After inflating a boat, Jason and Jaime used a sonar depth finder to quickly determine the depth of the lake.  Although the lake is relatively shallow throughout (~40 cm), there was over 7 meters of sediment!  Mark, Jaime, and Jason spent a few hours collecting a surface core to carefully capture the mud-water interface, and I spent the time collecting surface samples from the adjacent wetlands. We then returned back to Sogamoso while Mark held the core upright, partially sticking out of the car window, and upon returning we extruded the core centimeter by centimeter into bags. Tomorrow we will return to collect the full sediment core, as well as additional surface samples from wetlands surrounding the lake.


The crew at the lake. From left to right: Mark Brenner, myself, Jaime Escobar, and Jason Curtis.


This land is not an inheritance from our parents; we are borrowing it from our children.

15 Jan 2017


Sign along the trail toward Laguna Negra. Approximate english translation is “This land is not an inheritance from our parents we are borrowing it from our children.”


Wetland along the edge of Laguna Negra.

Today we visited the Tacurrumby – Laguna Negra Nature Reserve, which was located very close to the peatland we sampled yesterday. Felipe Vallejo of the Unversidad of Caldas accompanied us, and he was nice enough to secure permission for us to sample within the reserve. Felipe may also analyze diatoms (a group of algae with cell walls made of silica) in the surface samples that we are collecting, as just like testate amoebae they have been little studied in paramo ecosystems.


Sign at the Tacurrumby – Laguna Negra Nature Reserve, showing a ruddy duck. However, the painting looks like the North American subspecies.

The painting on the trailhead sign at the nature reserve showed a ruddy duck (Oxyura jamaicensis), although from what I can find there is a fair amount of taxonomic uncertainty with species and subspecies identification (see wikipedia). There appears to be at least two subspecies, and some regard these as different species, the North American ruddy duck (O. jamaicensis jamaicensis) and the Andean ruddy duck (O. jamaicensis ferruginea). Other than differences in geographic distribution, the Andean ruddy has a completely black head whereas the North American ruddy white has a white face.  Interestingly, the painting on the trailhead sign shows a white face, which seems to be consistent with the North American species.  However, according to some there may also be a Colombian subspecies (O. jamaicensis andina) with some black coloration on the white face; however, these individuals may also just represent hybrids between the North American and Andean subspecies.  And the painting on the sign doesn’t show any black coloration within the white face.  Regardless, the Colombia population of ruddy ducks (O. jamaicensis ferruginea/andina) has declined over the past several decades, and according to the sign they are likely headed toward extinction here.

As we walked along the trail to the lake, we observed signs identifying some of the dominant plant and bird species, as well as highlighting the ecological value of the lake and associated wetland. The plant diversity was impressive, with large grass tussocks and many shrub species.

Upon reaching the lake we immediately spotted the bright blue bill of the flagship ruddy duck as advertised on the trailhead sign! However, unlike the painting the male duck’s head was completely black, consistent with the Andean ruddy duck, as one would expect here. Shortly thereafter we spotted a female Andean ruddy duck and a duckling! Add one more to the population size in Colombia.


Male Andean ruddy duck (O. jamaicensis ferruginea) on Laguna Negra. Note the completely black face.


Female and baby Andean ruddy ducks (O. jamaicensis ferruginea) on Laguna Negra.

After collecting surface samples, we drove up into the Nevado del Ruiz National Park to look for potential future research sites. After this excursion, we sampled another peatland located at a bit lower elevation than Laguna Negra. Over 70 samples collected so far!


Felipe Vallejo, Jaime Escobar, Jason Curtis, and myself sampling a peatland in the paramo below Laguna Negra.

Monteverde memories (student guest post)

The cloud forest of Monteverde. (Photo: LMW).

The cloud forest of Monteverde. (Photo: LMW).

“Couldn’t stay in bed so I went outside around 5am. No one was around so I had a chance to take a deep breath and enjoy the surroundings. I felt relaxed and appreciated the moment.  The efforts made by Costa Ricans to conserve and protect these beautiful areas of nature must be a contributing factor to their culture of peace. Maintaining these areas not only protects biodiversity and the environment, but also serves as a symbol of the country’s national identity. Before this trip, whenever I told people that I was going to Costa Rica the inevitable response was “I’ve heard it’s beautiful there.”

It is. One of the reasons why it is so beautiful is that the people that live here make it a priority to keep it that way.”

Those excerpts from my journal encapsulate my feelings about Costa Rica. My trip was not for field study, nor was the main point of it to explore the amazing biodiversity and conservation ethic of the country. The trip was was part of a course entitled “Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution.” Part of the course was a 10-day trip to Costa Rica, which admittedly was the main reason I became interested in the first place. We explored aspects of Costa Rican society and listened to lectures from speakers from different disciplines and backgrounds (e.g., education, government, conservation, culture). We took field trips aimed at studying Costa Rica’s “culture of peace” and how it permeates virtually every aspect of their society, including the government. The trip to Monteverde, where I wrote the journal entry quoted above, was actually our time off: taking us out of San Jose for 2 nights and giving us a bit of a break from our long days in the classroom and buses. It was a wonderful respite from the bustle.

Cloud forest in Monteverede. (Photo: LMW)

Cloud forest in Monteverede. (Photo: LMW)

A few years prior, a friend of mine had taken a trip to Costa Rica for a field study in herpetology and all he could talk about was how amazingly GREEN everything was. I had not seen anything to fit that description. But all of that changed when we arrived in Monteverde – which literally means “green mountain.” I remember thinking: here is Costa Rica! Immediately I was struck by the diversity of plants, many of which were unlike anything I had ever seen before. Nearly 4% of the total number of species in the world are in Costa Rica!

But where were the animals? Where were these amazing technicolor frogs I had read so much about? The two things I looked forward to seeing most were spiders and frogs, and probably like most people, I had the mistaken impression that they would be everywhere; that you would practically have to avoid stepping on them. However, I was only able to catch a glimpse(I mean literally, a tiny peek) at a frog. A single solitary frog. And that wasn’t even on my morning hike on the trails around the lodge, but was on a night hike with a guide that had eagle eyes and knew the area like the back of his hand. However, I did get to see some really cool spiders and lots of other plants and animals. But I still secretly wondered: where were the frogs?

Spider in the cloud forest. (Photo: LMW).

Spider in the cloud forest. (Photo: LMW).

Night-hike in the cloud forest. (Photo: LMW)

Night-hike in the cloud forest. (Photo: LMW)

Not that my anecdotal “froglessness” should be interpreted as representative of frog populations sizes in Costa Rica, but it did get me thinking about extinction. Apparently even in Costa Rica, a place that is known for its efforts in conservation, reforestation, preservation, and any other environmentally conscious word ending in -“ation” that you can think of, they are losing species at an alarming rate. Deforestation has been primary cause of biodiversity in Costa Rica, but increasingly climate change is seen as a major biodiversity threat, particularly in mountainous areas. Among the most vulnerable organisms to climate change are the amphibians, as recent research has documented linkages between pathogen outbreaks and global warming. The golden toad. Gone. The Monteverde harlequin frog. Gone.  And these extinctions are before the “escalator effect” even gets going. This NPR podcast is a nice summary of the situation.

 “A few of us heard that there was a suspension bridge on one of the trails, so we went for a little hike before leaving Monteverde.  I could have spent the whole day on that trail, just listening to the sounds of the birds and nothing else. We didn’t talk much, instead just thinking about how lucky we were to be there.”

And almost 2 years later, I still feel the same way. The remaining species of frogs probably do too.


Time, Tyrannosaurus rex, and Stegosaurus (link)

Some nice perspective on evolutionary time….  “Less time separates us from Tyrannosaurus rex than separated T. rex from Stegosaurus.”

On Dinosaur Time | Dinosaur Tracking.

A really big snake (link)

Scientists find worlds biggest snake : Nature News.

A big story about a big bug (link)

A fantastic story with a great video.

Six-Legged Giant Finds Secret Hideaway, Hides for 80 Years : Krulwich Wonders… : NPR.

Rhino Wars (link)

Incredible pictures from National Geographic.  Rhino Wars – Photo Gallery – Pictures, More From National Geographic Magazine.

Extinct species and subspecies

Links to some additional information on just a few species that have recently perished from our planet.

 I.  Quagga (Equus quagga quagga).  A subspecies on the plains Zebra.  Extinct since 1883.

Quagga, Public Domain, Wikipedia

1870 Photograph of a Quagga in the London Zoo.

II.  Dusky Seaside-Sparrow (Ammodramus maritimus nigrescens). Extinct, 1987.

Fifty-pence piece of the Falklands Islands, showing the Falklands Island Wolf.

III. Falkland Islands Wolf or Warrah (Dusicyon australis). Extinct, 1876.

And just for fun…

IV.  Titicaca Orestias (Orestias cuvieri). Likely Extinct, 1950s.

Titicaca Orestias, also known as Amanto, have likely been extinct since the 1950s.

V.  Thylacine or Tasmanian Tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus). Extinct, 1933.

Thylacines in the coat of arms of Tasmania.

Compilation of all known footage of the Thylacine:

Thylacine image on the label of Cascade Lager. (photo credit: James Cridland)

Over the years rewards have been offered to anyone that recovers clear evidence of the continued existence of the species, and there are frequently rumors of Thylacine sightings in the wild (see here for example).  However, no sightings have been confirmed; although, the thylacine image does show up in some pretty strange places…

VI.  Passenger pigeon, extinct 1914.

A painting of passenger pigeons by Lewis Cross that hangs in Muskegon's Lakeshore Museum Center. Click the image for the interesting story of this reclusive artist.

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