San Diego Natural History Museum--Your Nature ConnectionSDNHM Biodiversity Research Center of the Californias
Agua Verde–Punta Mechudo Binational Expedition

Binational Expedition to Agua Verde and Punta MechudoDAY NINE
Thursday, November 13, 2003

Los Dolores, Baja California (Map location 3)
Transmitted from camp by an Apple computer hooked to a Qualcomm/GlobalstarUSA satellite phone.

Cañon de La Higuera

Team Herp and Team Botany set out by panga to explore Cañon de La Higuera. This remote canyon is located to the south of Rancho Los Burros along the rugged Sierra de La Giganta coastline. During the night before, overcast skies set in and we awoke to the feel of rain. We put on the rain-flys and spread the tarps over the equipment as precautionary measures. While it never did rain, the weather system moving through the area would eventually lead to a strong north wind, which started at sunset. In the morning, the seas were still relatively flat, despite the threatening weather, so our panga drivers judged it to be safe to give Cañon de La Higuera a try. They warned us that the canyon faced towards the incoming current and we should expect a wet beach landing.

We arrived at the mouth of the canyon after a 30 minute boat ride, passing the 800 foot faces that drop into the sea. Team Botany was first to try a landing. The canyon beach was composed of gravel and the slope was steep. Landing the boats would be impossible, so the plan was to make a quick drop-off onshore and the boats would make a quick get-a-way to deeper water. The panga drivers set anchor about 50 feet from the breaking surf and backed the boat in. Team Botany’s boat went first, while Team Herp waited by the anchor point to learn and observe.

The panga entered the surf and each member jumped towards the shore only to land in knee to waist-high water. The KPBS film crew was also along and the “big camera” was passed to the team members firmly ashore. Immediately after everyone made it to the beach, a large wave swamped the boat and turned it parallel to the beach. The panga drivers had been trying to steady the rear of the boat and lost their grasp. For a moment, Team Herp looked on with fear as the panga was rocked by another wave, turned 90 degrees onto its side, and then righted itself. Luckily, one of the panga drivers was the size of a linebacker and heaved the front of the boat back towards the oncoming waves and saved the day. In a moment, the driver was aboard and motored the boat to safety.

With Team Botany nearly drenched, Team Herp had time to prepare a quick strategy on the orderly procession from the boat. After some radio communications to discuss the circumstances, our panga dropped anchor and backed in towards the beach. As the boat reached the shore, each member of Team Herp filed towards the back of the boat and onto shore. disembarked over the side and landed in chest-high water, but for the most part the landing was orderly.

Both teams were able to explore this steep-walled canyon for four hours and each was able to add to their biodiversity samples. The canyon is so remote that it has never been surveyed by scientists. The KPBS film crew was able to follow Team Botany and interview them as they discovered new populations of poorly understood species. Cameraman Chris Pyle and reporter Eric Niiler have proven to be hardy field reporters and followed the researchers the surf, up mountains, and across cliffs.

At 2:00pm, the boats returned to pick us up. Unfortunately the surf had increased and the challenge of bordering the pangas was ahead of us. Team Herp went out first to greet the panga and got hit by a two-foot wave that drove everyone back. Again, after another try, Team Herp was safely aboard, albeit completely drenched. Bodies were heaved onto the boat by belts and life-vests. After motoring to a safe distance, we again had the opportunity to watch Team Botany board their panga.

With little trouble, Team Botany jumped aboard, but left Dr. Jon Rebman to hoist the "big camera" above his shoulders and wade into the pounding surf. After a few attempts the transfer of the equipment was complete and both pangas made it safely back to base-camp.

Team Aqua Insect Update
Today the aquatic insect team (Maggie Reinbold and Carlos Flores) set out to explore a remote water source called “Agua Escondido”; located approximately four miles northwest of base-camp. The trek to the source was not as arduous as previous hikes, but was definitely lengthy and hot, traversing grass, rock, and soft sand. When we finally did arrive, we were surprised to discover that there was not much water to be found at Agua Escondido; hence the name “hidden water”. After a brief lunch, we proceeded to sample the modest accumulation. Again we were surprised; this time to discover a healthy amount of insect diversity in such a small community space. Using state of the art aquatic nets and jars of fresh ethanol, we collected aquatic beetles (Hydrophilidae), water striders (Gerridae), various insect larvae (Odonata), and even a tadpole for the herpetologists. On previous day hikes the aquatic insect diversity has been much more noteworthy due in part to long processions of deepwater pools.

In days past we have collected insects from numerous groups including: Belostomatidae, Ephemeroptera, Naucoridae, and Corixidae from pools ranging in depth from one to seven feet. By far the most amazing in size were the female giant water bugs (Belostomatidae), reaching lengths greater than three inches. Also impressive were the herbaceous diving beetles (Hydrophilidae), with their shiny elytras and enormous spines. One exciting adventure even had us sampling a robust population of back-swimmers (Notonectidae) from a high-elevation ephemeral freshwater lake (Lago Kakiwi). As the heat of the day dissipated, we sat below the date palms and listened to the frogs calling before packing our supplies to begin the journey home.

Bradford Hollingsworth
Expedition Coordinator
Maggie Reinbold and Carlos Flores
From camp at 11:45pm

Pangas head for Cañon de La Higuera
Pangas head for Cañon de La Higuera.

View of the Sierra de La Giganta coastline
View of the Sierra de La Giganta coastline.

Dr. Oscar Flores assesses the cliffs from a panga.
Dr. Oscar Flores assesses the cliffs from a panga.

Dr. Brad Hollingsworth and Maura Maher having fun
Dr. Brad Hollingsworth and Maura Maher having fun.

Chris Pyle from KPBS films researchers
Chris Pyle from KPBS films researchers.

Chris Pyle and Eric Niiler from KPBS hiking up Cañon de La
Chris Pyle and Eric Niiler from KPBS hiking up Cañon de La Higuera.

View of Cañon de La Higuera from a panga
View of Cañon de La Higuera from a panga.

Friday, November 14, 2003

Los Dolores, Baja California (Map location 3)
Transmitted from camp by an Apple computer hooked to a Qualcomm/GlobalstarUSA satellite phone.

Rain Comes In and Researchers Prepare to Leave Los Dolores
David Faulkner prepares insect specimens in his preparations tent.
David Faulkner prepares insect specimens in his preparations tent.

Collection of various insect specimens.
Collection of various insect specimens.

Dr. Jon Rebman, Dr. José Delgadillo, and Jan Emming in botany tent.
Dr. Jon Rebman, Dr. José Delgadillo, and Jan Emming in botany tent.

Carlos Flores prepares specimens.
Carlos Flores prepares specimens.

Baja California Ratsnake (Bogertophis rosaliae)
Baja California Ratsnake (Bogertophis rosaliae).

Couch's Spadefoot Frog (Scaphiopus couchii) emerges after rains.
Couch's Spadefoot Frog (Scaphiopus couchii) emerges after rains.

The loaming rain finally came and a light sprinkle came to Los Dolores. I was able to hook up the satellite phone, and with my speedy 7k connection, I logged onto the internet to see the band of moisture sweeping across Baja California. The seas have remained calm, but choppy, which is a worrisome concern since our departure from Los Dolores is scheduled for tomorrow. We have had fortunate luck up until now and we hope our departure will remain on schedule. Phase two of the expedition will begin on November 16 as we relocate our base-camp to San Evaristo and add Team Birds and Team Mammals into the equation.

Today we mostly prepared research specimens, organized camp, and started packing up the gear. Over the week, Team Herp has been able to document 24 species of amphibians and reptiles. Since the region represents an enormous sampling gap, this work will represent the first baseline data of the types of species found here. Of the known amphibians and reptiles from the southern portion of peninsula, the region potentially has 42 species (barring the discovery of undescribed species). This information will be the beginning of a more detailed analysis of species’ richness and habitat use.

As the rain began to fall, the Couch’s Spadefoot (Scaphiopus couchi) frog emerged from the sandy soils and became active. This has been true for many of the reptile species as well, especially following the hurricanes from last September. It appears that all of the reptiles species seen thus far are active only for the opportunity to forage and no reproductive behaviors have been observed. Despite the wet conditions of the past couple of months, many appear tied to their seasonal hormonal cycles (shorter days means its time to lie dormant) and will breed during the Spring.

I’m hoping to send a log tomorrow night, but we are headed back to Ensenada Blanca if the weather doesn’t worsen. Communications logistics are always more difficult when traveling since everything is packed. Maybe I’ll be able to find an "intenet café" somewhere in Loreto to send news of tomorrow’s transition.

Update from Team Arthropod
It would seem by now that everything about the insect and arachnid fauna of Baja California would be known. This, however, is not the case. Only a small portion of the terrestrial invertebrates have been collected, and these specimens often represent only the most accessible areas of the peninsula that can be reached by boat, plane, or car. Huge sections of the region are only known by the people living there. This is especially true of the area from Loreto to near La Paz along the eastern shoreline facing the Sea of Cortés. The expedition’s base-camp at Los Dolores is such a place.

Although only a small fraction of the insects can be observed, collected, processed, and identified during the limited time spent here, certain well-known groups can help fill in the gaps in our knowledge of the region. One such group is the order Lepidoptera, containing the butterflies. Having researched the available literature and collections, the Butterflies of Baja California was published in 1992 with huge gaps in our understanding of butterfly flight periods, distribution, abundance and diversity, and perhaps most of all, their larval host plants and basic biologies, In six days of collecting butterflies on flowers, in flight, on hilltops, and around mud puddles, 39 species have been recorded. Of these, 29 species were known only from two or less records, and most of those were from offshore locations such as Isla San José. No new species records have been established for the peninsula, nor have any described butterflies not previously seen in this region been found. However, the pattern of butterfly distribution seems to reflect an attenuation, or narrowing of the Cape fauna as one moves north toward Loreto and Santa Rosalia. For this time of the year, and following the recent heavy rains, there is a tremendous abundance of pierid butterflies that respond quickly to these conditions. More specialized species are rare or totally absent.

As the other insect material is processed and analyzed, a clearer understanding of this unique region of the world will be revealed. More will need to be done, but perhaps a bit less than before this expedition began.

Update from Team Botany
On 12 November 2003, the botany team stayed a bit closer to the main base camp in order to recover from the long and strenuous hike to the lake in Valle de Kakiwi on the previous day. However, this gave the botanists the chance to do some exploring along the bottom of Arroyo Dolores and on the local beach dunes and coastal bluffs. Due to the large amount of rain that had fallen and run-off from the mountains during the two hurricanes that passed over just before our arrival, most of the herbaceous plant communities along the bottom of the arroyo have been scoured away in the floods. Thus, it was difficult to find any new plant records in the wetter areas of the watershed. We collected only 8 different plants from the immediate locale, but did find an entire hillside population of an uncommon endemic species called Coulterella capitata in the sunflower family (Asteraceae). Not only is this species endemic to Baja California Sur, but the genus is monotypic (with only one species) and is completely restricted to this region.

On 13 November 2003, the botany loaded into a panga (small boat) and headed to a remote coastal canyon south of Rancho Los Burros. It can almost be assured that no botanist has ever explored this canyon before due to its remote nature and inaccessibility. In fact, we almost capsized the panga trying to get ashore because of a steep rocky beach and large powerful waves pounding on the shore. We made 18 collections in this canyon, many of which are quite rare and endemic to this part of the peninsula including Eucnide tenella, Perityle lobata, Marsdenia carterae, Conobea polystachya, and Ferocactus rectispinus. The endemic barrel cactus, Ferocactus rectispinus, was quite interesting because it exhibited many gland spines near its flowers that were covered by ants. These plants apparently produce nectar in the gland spines at the top of the cactus that feed the ants that live around its base. In turn, the ants are very territorial and seem to protect the plants from other insects that might try to walk up the stem and damage the fresh, delicate cells at the growing apex or steal nectar or pollen from the flowers. This strategy is useful to not only to protect the plant from small herbivores but also to promote outcrossing pollination because the only bugs that can successfully visit the flowers without being attacked by the ants are flying insects like butterflies and bees that carry pollen from other individuals and other populations, in turn increasing the genetic diversity of the species.

Bradford Hollingsworth
Expedition Coordinator
David Faulkner (the one man terrestrial arthropod machine) and Jon Rebman (Team Botany)
From camp at 9:30pm

Photos by Bradford Hollingsworth

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