“The Rio Negro is probably the most strikingly beautiful place on earth,” says Professor of Biology David Campbell. For decades he has been sharing his love of this Amazon tributary with Grinnellians, taking hundreds of students and alumni there.
This Fall Break the tradition continues as Campbell leads a group of Grinnell undergraduates and faculty members to live aboard the Dorinha, a 60-foot wooden boat of local construction, traveling 400 km on the Rio Negro from Manaus to its confluence with the Rio Branco. “Well … that’s if the water levels permit,” says Campbell. “We’ll do what the river and terrain tell us. If the water level is high, we may be canoeing through the treetops. If it is low, then we will be walking on the forest floor.”
The students will be going on this expedition as part of an Environmental Studies course that focuses on tropical biodiversity, examining three major issues in the field: the evolution and maintenance of hyperdiverse biological communities, models of equilibrium vs. disequilibrium, and the human impact on the ecology of river and forest. “Contrary to myth, there is no wilderness left in Amazonia,” says Campbell. “It’s been an anthropogenic environment for thousands of years.”
The faculty members are Keith Brouhle (economics), Ellen Mease (theatre and dance), Mark Montgomery (economics), John Rommereim (music), Pablo Silva (history). Except for Mease, it will be their first visit to Amazonia. The faculty will be assigned the same readings as the students, so that the group should have a common foundation for their studies.
All the group’s daily activities will contribute to their educational mission. They will take to canoes to explore the várzea (forests flooded with silty water), igapó; (forests flooded with acidic water), and hike through the terra firme (the dry upland forest that harbors most of the biological diversity). They will arise before dawn to “listen to the changing of the guard” as nocturnal species give way to diurnal ones.
While in the field, the students will be required to identify at least 500 species of plants and animals. “A pretty challenging assignment,” admits Campbell, “but that’s still only about 0.001 percent of the diversity of the place.”
Even fishing (in addition to providing much of the expedition’s food) will teach participants about aquatic food chains. “The students will examine the stomach content of every fish they catch,” says Campbell.
Much of the exploration will take place at night. “We’re lucky to be there at the new moon,” says Campbell, “so we can take accurate censuses of nocturnal animal species - caimans, arboreal pit vipers, tree boas, spiny tree rats, nightjars, potoos, spiders, among others - by observing the reflection of their eyes in the beams of our spotlights. If things go as planned, we’ll all come back exhausted.”
Exhausted or not, both students and faculty members will have plenty to do when they return. For the students it will be analyzing their field data. For the faculty, it will be working what they’ve learned into future research and teaching. Mease, for example, will use the adventure to revise a course on natural selection, Charles Darwin, and Alfred Russel Wallace, to be taught in Grinnell-in-London in 2010.