Super Subcultures

Risking Life and Limb to Catalog the World’s Plants

“Plant collection” may not sound perilous, but while scaling boulders and dodging snakes, I learned just how much these intrepid explorers risk to help understand our world.

Risking Life and Limb to Catalog the World’s Plants

It’s our third week in the Guyanese rainforest, and we’ve hiked out to the base of a small but fast-moving waterfall to see what plants we can collect around the wet rock face. Getting to it involves scrambling over a series of large boulders with long drops to one side. It would be a nerve-wracking climb at the best of times, but as we get about a third of the way up, it starts to pour in that abrupt fashion particular to the tropics. The mossy rocks instantly become slippery to the touch, and it isn’t clear whether it’s less dangerous to keep going or try descending back the way we’ve come.

We decide to keep going, and manage to get to the rock face to make some collections, including a few delicate orchids clinging to the stone. But it’s obvious we aren’t going to get back down the way we’ve come. One of the field assistants who has stayed below circles around and cuts a path through the dense forest near the top of the falls. It’s an alternate way out, but we still have to get up to the head of the trail he’s cut. That means climbing a near-vertical wall of wet cut-grass, a plant named for its hand-slicing capacity. I press myself into it, grab the cut-grass and try to scramble up. Anytime I stop scrambling for a moment, I start to backslide, slipping down the grassy wall toward the huge boulders and rushing water below.

Waterfalls curve around a bend near the top of a tepui. (All photos courtesy the author)

After a few minutes of frenzied activity, I peek my head over the top of the wall. As someone with a profound snake phobia, I’m considering that the ill-timed appearance of one right now would be the end of me. The universe must have laughed at that thought, because just then, what looks like a terrier-sized rat pokes its face out of the bushes inches in front of me. I’m so startled that I nearly lose my grip and plummet to a grisly fate below.

Some deeply buried instinct for survival thankfully surfaces just in time and I grab the grass before the point of no return. It takes the entirety of my willpower to remain motionless in front of what turns out to be a creature the Guyanese call a labba: Cuniculus paca, a harmless South American rodent that can reach up to 25 pounds. Making our way back to our field site, feeling the exhaustion that follows in the wake of a flood of adrenaline, it occurs to me that I’ve just risked life and limb for the sake of some dried plants.

It’s May 2009. We’re a team of two American botanists, a local flora expert, two field assistants, a local guide and observer from the Amerindian community on whose land we are collecting specimens, and me, a Canadian Ph.D. student in plant systematics. We’re here in Guyana to conduct a “general sampling” of the flora of an understudied region of the Guiana Shield, a billion-year-old, Precambrian geological formation along the northeastern edge of South America. This means that we’ll be collecting anything and everything, from tiny clumps of moss right up to samples from the tallest trees of the canopy. It’s difficult and hazardous work, but this expedition will bring in more than 700 collections belonging to 90 different plant families, some species of which may be new to science.

The expedition leader and I are legume specialists, so we’ll be keeping a particular eye out for plants in that family. Depending on the abundance of a given plant, we’ll take anywhere from one to 10 collections of it. Each sample will be pressed and attached to a heavy sheet of paper labeled with descriptions of what it is and where it came from. In any case where only a single collection of a plant can be made, it will always go to the University of Guyana, because this is their flora. Any additional samples will be distributed to the foremost herbaria (plant specimen collections) of the world: the Smithsonian, London’s Kew Gardens, New York, Paris, the Netherlands and elsewhere. Researchers all over the world will use them to investigate scientific questions about the plants and ecosystems that exist here — and how they may be changing.

Looking down the Kako River, a tabletop mountain, or tepui, is seen in the background.

We are traveling by boat up the Mazaruni and Kako rivers, east of the Venezuelan border in the Pakaraima Mountains. We set up camp for a few days and make day hikes, moving slowly over the terrain, collecting whatever we find, unless the plant is potentially rare or threatened, and then it is left alone — better it remain unknown but alive.

Each day we hike a new area with different terrain: mountainside, swamp, riverbank, a patch of savannah. Here in Guyana, the mountains are of a flat-topped variety called tepuis, or tabletop mountains, unique to this part of the world. They jut abruptly up through the jungle in isolation, rather than as a continuous range, like a series of ancient tree stumps grown over with moss — making each one home to a group of unique indigenous plant species.

At the moment, we are days from what I would recognize as a hospital, and the heat and humidity of the tropics make infection and exhaustion real threats, narrowing the margin of error should something go wrong. A lifetime of being close to help and having access to modern medicine has made me dangerously complacent about the types of risks that come with isolation, and I’m in my 20s, so I think I’m immortal anyway.

Today, we’re collecting near a swamp. The other two botanists and the two field assistants, Delph and Timo, have set out into the swamp to see what interesting specimens may be found there. Knowing how common water snakes are in this region, my phobia and I have opted to stay by the edge of the water and catalogue what I can find there. I collect for a time, but my teammates are gone for what ends up being hours.

Left to right: Field assistant Delph Hunter, expedition leader Dr. Karen Redden, and me sitting at camp studying maps, surrounded by notebooks and the newspapers used to press the plant collections in the Guyanese rainforest, May 2009.

I sit down on a fallen tree a few feet from the water and start making notes in my log book to pass the time. The hours keep stretching out, and I’ve finally decided to work up the nerve to follow my team when Delph abruptly appears from one side along the bank, heading straight for me, walking quietly but very quickly. He looks afraid — not something you want to see on the face of someone hired for his stoicism and experience in the bush. Swooping by me almost without slowing, he catches me firmly by the arm and tells me to follow him, quietly. At a walk that approaches a run, we move into the forest. We’re well out of sight of the water before he slows and turns to me. Catching his breath and gradually resuming the calm demeanor which, until now, has been his defining feature, he describes the enormous anaconda that’s been lying motionlessly stretched out among the grasses at the edge of the water, just a few feet from where I was sitting.

Lying in my hammock that night, a small collection of anaconda facts plays on repeat in my head. The green anaconda, Eunectes murinus, is one of two species of anaconda that is found in Guyana; there are four species globally. It has a maximum verified length of 20 to 30 feet, sometimes weighing over 500 pounds. It is the largest snake in the world. Feared throughout human history and often killed on sight, anacondas have a reputation as merciless man-eaters, crushing the bones of their victims before swallowing them whole. Sleep doesn’t come easily, tired as I am.

I later learn that the truth, as usual, is somewhat less dramatic. Attacks on humans are vanishingly rare: anacondas prefer to flee rather than risk pursuing unfamiliar prey of unknown strength. Neither do these huge snakes crush their victims’ bones. Their constriction blocks the circulatory system from delivering blood to the prey’s brain, although aquatic attacks are just as likely to result in drowning. While there have been attacks, there is no documented case of an anaconda killing a human. Sitting there together, each apex predators in our own right, I was theoretically as much a threat to the snake as it was to me. Nevertheless, I’m happy not to have learned what it is to have a giant snake try to drown me in a swamp today.

Beyond snakes, there are myriad other creatures in the tropics that can be bad news if you cross them. Ants, wasps, spiders and even caterpillars here carry defenses far beyond what their North American counterparts are typically packing. The bats won’t hurt you per se, but if you so much as press up against your mosquito net shroud while sleeping, they’ll feast on your blood all night and leave a startling mess in the morning.

One of the many snake species that move through the trees and underbrush of the Guyanese forest.

Even the plants here are better armed than you might expect. The well-named “monkey no-climb” tree, Hura crepitans, sports a trunk covered in nasty, inch-long spikes that easily puncture skin. The most important thing is to be aware of your surroundings — where you step, where you rest your hand against a tree, where you sit down. Sharp eyes and deliberate movements can be the difference between disaster and a near miss.

One of the more glamorously risky activities of tropical plant collection is tree climbing. The highest canopy trees of a wet tropical forest can reach 200 feet, and they don’t have many branches on the way up, because those branches wouldn’t reach the sun and would therefore represent a nutritional liability. That means you have to get yourself way up to sample a branch with leaves or flowers. Climbing spikes are huge, crescent-shaped pieces of metal that strap onto your shoes. They have teeth positioned on the bottom such that if you nestle the crescent around the circumference of the tree’s trunk and step down, the teeth will catch in the bark firmly enough to bear your weight. Experienced climbers will scuttle up trees this way with impressive speed, giving you the impression that it isn’t really that hard. Learning to do it for the first time is another matter.

First, there is the natural tensing of the human body when your brain realizes it’s at a height where a fall would hurt. Then there’s how complicated the heavy spike actually is to position in order to grab the tree properly, using only your foot and without a clear view of what you’re doing. Do it incorrectly and you’ll slip; you won’t fall, because your other foot-claw will still be dug into the bark, but you’ll probably scrape your face on the tree and maybe twist your other ankle. What’s more, once you reach a certain height, you’re on your own figuring out how to do the whole process in reverse to get down.

Then there’s the possibility of wasps and stinging ants defending the tree. If you get well above the ground and bumble into the nest of some angry, swarming insects, you are in a lot of trouble. You can’t jump, and it’s hard to calmly and correctly place your feet to climb down while under attack from biting and stinging insects. But for many of the trees in a wet tropical forest, climbing is the only way to sample. So we climb.

Dr. Karen Redden, the leader of my expedition, is a former research associate and collector for the Smithsonian Institution’s Biodiversity of the Guiana Shield program. Over a career that includes a dozen collecting expeditions to this region, Redden has experienced many of the dangers inherent to tropical fieldwork firsthand. She’s encountered poisonous snakes, skirted lethal drops, and contracted malaria, leishmaniasis and anthrax. She’s also experienced one of the worst-case scenarios for field scientists.

Dr. Karen Redden instructs me on how to climb trees using climbing spikes.

On a 2012 trip to Guyana, Redden developed an infection in her hand while out in the forest. The emergency antibiotics she’d always carried into the field failed to prevent fever and severe swelling. The hand began to turn blue, and even cutting into it with a razor blade to relieve the pressure didn’t help. Knowing she was in trouble, Redden hiked from dawn to dusk with the assistance of a colleague to return to a small mining village as quickly as possible.

Once there, Redden went into septic shock. She barely remembers taking a supply plane back to the capital city and having emergency surgery to try to clear the infection from her hand. Though the surgery probably saved her life, it didn’t cure the antibiotic-resistant infection, and she was airlifted back to New York to undergo further surgery to try to save her hand. Redden, who worked in Washington, D.C., at the time, laughs now, remembering how she asked the surgeon to please save her middle finger, saying, “I’m a D.C. driver, I need that finger.”

This is the dry sense of humor you need to be an intrepid botanical explorer. Even so, Redden spent a week in the hospital and took two months to fully recover. She still lacks sensation in part of her hand due to nerve damage. In the end, it wasn’t danger that ended her field career, but distance. “To be truthful,” she says when I ask why she stopped going, “the guy that I married and now have a baby with … I didn’t really want to leave him to go away for six weeks.” That, plus the difficulty of constantly trying to find funding as once-reliable sources dried up and left her scrounging to make ends meet, was enough to make her walk away from the work she loved.

Between danger, loneliness and poor pay, it’s easy to wonder what a person’s motivation could be for doing this work. For Redden, it was a dream that began in childhood. “I loved the stories about Swiss Family Robinson and Robinson Crusoe. I have always been a devoted fan of Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey, and as a young girl, watching documentaries about their research was captivating.” As an adult, she found herself more drawn to plants than animals. “I loved looking at old herbarium collections and imagining the collectors trudging through the jungles …. You can’t help but daydream about their adventures.”

Dr. Redden sites the edge of a stream for a break during a long day of collecting.

Despite her experiences, Redden is philosophical about the dangers of her work. “I guess anything we do in life carries risks,” she says. “I don’t know that the danger of walking through the forest is any higher than walking down a busy street these days.”

Indeed, sometimes even the most mundane locales carry dangers for field scientists. Dr. Kaitlin Stack Whitney, a visiting assistant professor in the Environmental Science department at the Rochester Institute of Technology, recalls doing insect collection in a huge agricultural field in Wisconsin when a neighbor of the farmer who had given her permission to work in the field approached and confronted her with a gun, demanding to know if she was a cattle thief.

“That was very scary … we were where we were supposed to be, but they didn’t know who we were,” she says. “It’s just that instantaneous miscommunication and trying to get on the same page about what we were doing.” The dangers of her fieldwork in the Midwest have also included potentially armed marijuana growers hiding their crops in study fields, the threat of tornadoes, and hoping she didn’t go into labor out in the field while 37 weeks pregnant.

The risks of certain field sites are more dramatic than others, but as Stack Whitney puts it, “it’s never going to be 100 percent safe, even if you’re in what seems like a really boring place.”

Why is this kind of danger, not to mention the expense, worthwhile? Fieldwork, and collections in particular, form a foundation for research on biodiversity, distribution patterns, global and local extinctions, invasive species, and the effects of climate change and other types of environmental degradation. Collecting specimens from a given locale provides a snapshot of that place at a single point in time, allowing us to see how it changes. Collections are priceless in their way, because we can never go back and take that same snapshot again.

Four members of the expedition beginning to clear brush and small trees with machetes in order to build a campsite.

In fact, if anything, collections become more valuable over time, as science progresses and new methods of analysis are developed. We can now analyze DNA from species that went extinct decades before we knew what DNA was — but only if we have the collection in the first place. That is why the current trend of decreased funding for both collecting and taxonomy — the science of determining exactly what those collections are — is so concerning.

Redden says that a career as a pure collector is nearly unsustainable now, explaining that while very specific questions may get funding, broad, exploratory work doesn’t. “You can’t just be a collector anymore.”

Stack Whitney agrees, noting that short funding cycles discourage the kind of long-term observation and collecting needed to really understand biodiversity and how it’s changing in a particular environment. Meanwhile, museums that maintain natural history collections are dealing with reduced budgets and the elimination of staff positions. Taxonomic expertise, the foundation of natural history research, requires many years of training to develop; once gone, it is difficult to replace. “The time frame it takes taxonomists to do a study or describe a new species doesn’t match the breakneck pace that people are expected to [maintain],” says Stack Whitney. “It’s not a growing field of opportunity, and I don’t know what that means long term for everybody’s research.”

An orchid specimen collected by Dr. Redden, laid out on newspaper for pressing.

A lack of funding and staffing means that specimens someone risked their safety to collect now sometimes sit in storage for many years, unidentified and unstudied because there is no one available with the necessary expertise, or those that have it are too overworked. Redden recalls that all of the collectors at her institution had collections waiting to be identified. “There were cabinets and cabinets full.”

A 2010 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that fewer than a fifth of new species are studied and described within five years of being collected, and projects that as many as half of all “undiscovered” plant species are sitting in herbaria right now, waiting to be examined.

A comprehensive study published in 2011 projects that we’ve only discovered and described about 1.2 million of an estimated 8.7 million species, globally. Among plants, we’ve discovered about 374,000 of an estimated 450,000. At the current rate of description and study, documenting all of these species would take more than a thousand years. With habitat destruction and climate change eradicating species at an unprecedented rate, many will simply be lost before they are ever found.

On one of our last days in the bush, I’m weaving about by the edge of the river, trying to find a clear view of the sky so that I can get reception on the satellite phone we carry. Finally, I hear my boyfriend’s voice on the phone, sounding every bit as far away as I know he is. Montreal may as well be on the moon for all the help he could give me if anything were seriously wrong, but hearing a familiar voice is a balm after weeks of moving through a place where everything feels as menacing as it is beautiful. The loneliness of long trips into the field is one thing technology can at least partially fix. Even in the most remote locations, you can hear a loved one’s voice.

After nearly a month in the bush, I’m exhausted, dirty and sore. I’m eager to get home and rediscover the luxury of mattresses, fresh vegetables and hot water. But I’m proud and a bit awed at having helped to find and collect plants that will be available for scientists to study for decades and even centuries to come. For a moment, I’m part of a long line of people who cared enough about knowing the world to take big risks. It makes the hard work and the danger feel worthwhile. But I also want to know that someone will be there to see what I’ve found.