20 Jan 2017
Today, we were accompanied by Felipe Velasco again, although this time instead of driving south toward Lake Tota we headed northeast toward the town of Mongua. We are extremely grateful for the time that Felipe has devoted to our efforts, as we would have had a difficult time finding these sites without him and it was reassuring to have a local person along. Our goal today was to explore and hopefully collect a core from Laguna Negra, a lake located in a different sort of paramo ecosystem. The drive was quite different than previous days, because we were able to see a much more industrial area of Boyaca. Between the cement factories and the steel mill, the pollution levels were quite high; in fact, much of the drive to Mongua smelled of a fragrant mixture of burning coal and diesel, and when we ascended the mountain above Mongua we observed a thick layer of smog in the valley. However, it was fascinating to see a fully functional steel mill, as gave me an appreciation of what Bethlehem Steel in Pennsylvania must have been like when it was operational. We observed many small family-owned coal mines along the road near Mongua, as this is the primary economic activity in this region.
Laguna Negra and the surrounding landscape was spectacular, and pictures really can’t convey the natural beauty of this place. While Jason and Jaime took measurements of the depth profile of the lake, I had the opportunity to hike around the lake margin. Unlike other lakes that we have visited, the lake margin was not peatland. Hypericum (St. John’s Wort) was common along the lake edge, along with a number of Carex species, and bright red Azolla grew in the littoral zone along with submerged aquatic plants like Myriophyllum. Inflow into the lake comes in the form of a spectacular waterfall, with abundant mosses and ferns growing adjacent to the waterfall in the perpetually humid environment.
The lake was about 9 meters deep with at least 3 meters of sediment, so we inflated a second boat, set our anchors, and commenced sediment coring. Mark Brenner and Felipe Velasco observed from shore, taking pictures of the coring process. We obtained several meters of mud, and once again we carefully kept the upper drive containing the mud-water interface upright on the trip back to Finca SanPedro.
On our way home we stopped in Mongua for some delicious empanadas and then went further down the road to Tópaga to take a look at the church on the main square. The Tópaga church is over 400 years old, and the inside is ornately decorated in gold. Colombia has abundant gold; in fact the yellow in the Colombian flag symbolizes the tremendous gold resources. This church in Tópaga is also probably one of the few churches that not only has artwork incorporating Jesus, the disciples, and other typical biblical representations, but also the devil. Yes, Lucifer himself is on a beam in the ceiling near the front of the church, directly center.
Our fieldwork is now complete. Tomorrow we will ship samples and cores from Sogamoso and then drive down to Bogota to pick up samples from our work in Manizales and prepare to depart on Sunday. This trip has been an amazing experience, and I feel extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to explore this fascinating country and see its amazing natural beauty. I am excited about this new collaboration, and the potential to develop long-term perspectives on water availability and ecology of the critically important paramo regions.
I sincerely thank Jaime Escobar for making this all happen. And I especially thank him for the doing all the driving!
17 Jan 2017
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.”
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.
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, 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.
16 January 2017
Today was a very long day of travel. We were supposed to fly from Manizales to Bogota, pick up the lake coring equipment that we left there, and then drive about 3.5 hours northeast to the city of Sogamoso. However, after spending a couple hours waiting for our plane to arrive, our flight was cancelled. The weather didn’t seem particularly bad, but the Manizales airport closed. Apparently it closes about 50% of the time. Perhaps it was ash from the volcano?
The airline provided a bus to transport passengers to Pereira, the nearest place with an airport, and we were rebooked on a flight to Bogota from there. Having seen the public bus passing cars on the winding road up the mountains from Manizales a couple days ago, I was a bit nervous about the bus trip. However, the ride was uneventful and we arrived in Pereira in about an hour and a half. We observed endless coffee fields on the drive, and given that Pereira is only at about 1000 meters in elevation, the temperature was considerably warmer when we arrived at the airport.
We arrived in Bogota about 5 hours later than we had scheduled. Unfortunately, the truck that we had reserved at the Bogota airport was not available because it was wrecked in a crash by the previous renter. I can’t say that I was surprised. So we rented an SUV instead, a Toyota Fortuner which I had never heard of, and once we loaded the coring equipment there was very little room left for passengers. However, we all squeezed in and headed out into the rush hour traffic of Bogota. Lots of public diesel buses made for pretty bad pollution. However, we made it to Sogamoso in reasonable time, stopping along the way for a tamal and flatbread for dinner, and arrived at our hostel a little after 10 pm – about 14 hours of traveling. I was tired, but excited to see a new paramo ecosystem.
15 Jan 2017
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.
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.
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!
15 Jan 2017
After breakfast at the hotel, which included fresh fruit, eggs, rice, and soup, we loaded up into two cars and drove up the winding road from Manizales toward the paramo to a site located just below Nevado del Ruiz National Park. Several other scientists, including Natalia Hoyos of the Universidad del Norte, and Felipe Vallejo, Raul Trejos, and Andres Pardo of the Universidad of Caldas, joined us. We ascended over 1000 meters in about an hour, and the driving experience was just as thrilling as it was in Bogota. Cars and motorcycles would pass other vehicles even on the very windy sections of this road. Even a public bus passed around a blind curve! The double yellow line on the road is clearly just a suggestion, and taken no more seriously than the posted speed limit is in much of the US.
As we ascended, the views of the rainforest and mountains were breathtaking, with the forest vegetation clearly changing as we progressed higher. Somewhere over about 3000 meters the trees disappeared and were replaced with tussock grasses and frailejón (pronounced fry-lay-hon-nez), which are some of the most characteristic plants of the paramo. Frailejón (Espeletia sp.) is in the Asteraceae family, which includes species with composite flowers like sunflowers, daises, and dandelions. However, other than the recognizable composite flower on the plant it is quite unique, with a thick trunk, hairy leaves, and old dead leaves that remain attached to the plant, presumably to protect it from the cold. The roots don’t apparently penetrate very deep in the soil, because it was not uncommon to see individuals toppled over.
Our goal for the day was to visit and collect surface samples from a peatland that was previously cored by Jaime and others. At Lehigh University we are currently analyzing testate amoebae in this core. Testate amoebae are a subgroup of amoeba that produce a decay-resistant and morphologically distinct shell. These organisms have been used estimate past changes in the hydrology of peatlands, because different species are found in dry versus wet habitats. A major goal of this new collaboration will be to assess the potential of using testate amoebae along with other indicators to reconstruct past hydrological and ecological changes within the paramo. However, currently nothing is known about the ecology of testate amoebae in peatlands of the paramo, so we are collecting surface samples to better understand the distribution of testate amoebae today, and we will use this information to interpret the changes that we are document in the peat core.
On our short hike to the peatland we were lucky enough to observe the Nevado del Ruiz volcano venting gas and ash. Although I have seen lava flows in Hawaii, an eruption like this was a first for me. The Nevada del Ruiz has been experiencing small eruptions like this over the past several years. However, the last major eruption was in 1985 and it caused the deadliest mud and debris flows in recorded history, killing over 25,000 people and burying an entire town.
The peatland was spectacular, and we spent a productive day collecting surface samples. Jaime almost didn’t make it out, but with a little effort he managed to avoid becoming the first known bog body of the paramo.