quarta-feira, 27 de novembro de 2013

Long time since I last typed some stuff here...
Many things have happened since April 2012. After that, I went back to Terceira for a short period of time to finish my Ms subjects and to work on the Azorean new species of endemic spiders that I have shown here in a previous post. The summer of 2012 was probably the only Summer in my life where I didn't attend the beach even once because I spent it working on my Masters thesis! My priority was to finish before the end of September so I didn't have to enroll again in the new scholar year (and pay additional fees, too). Many sunny afternoons were passed indoor, reading, testing and debating stuff with my supervisors. But in the end, it was done, and presented in the end of January 2013:
The presentation and debate with the juri went very very smooth as I was expecting more difficult questions about the work. 
and continue to work on the azorean linyphiids, boy are they demanding... difficult genera, tough luck.). This was my last stop in Terceira and the Azores to the present date. I left many friends there, most of whom I will only see in years to come, and overall the Azores was a great experience, although I need to move on from those interesting rocks in the Mid-Atlantic Ocean.

After this, I scheduled to meet Sandra at Utrecht once again. In this period, two
highlights were the trip to a Nature Reserve next to the coast, where we actually managed to spot a deer. Sandra managed to take some photos before he eventually vanished in the blink of an eye. Ah, in this day I also put my feet in the coldest water I have ever stepped into. Not a pleasant experience!
We also took 1 day to visit Leiden and the Naturalis Museum. Here's me next to the skeleton of a Megaloceros, aka the Irish Elk, which is not an elk nor endemic to Ireland.
Obviously, it would be impossible to present photos about a visit to a natural history museum without some kind of reference to spiders! Here's Sandra looking at some crazy araneoids.

After this stay at Utrecht, I started working on a 7-month grant from the University of Lisbon, regarding projects on Madeiran arthropods, and more precisely, spiders (what else?).
As expected, many new things appeared, the madeiran endemic fauna being more unknown than the Azorean. As of now, I should have about 15 new species to science endemic to somewhere in the Madeira archipelago, among Dysderas, linyphiids, hahniids, gnaphosids and a few other groups. The grant was over by the end of September, and now publications remain to be done. It's a never-ending story this, the lack of time and the taxonomic impediment... You can imagine that none of the new species' descriptions were priorities until I finished my grant period. As the grant was over, I went to the Netherlands again for another stay with Sandra.
In many occasions, we made our quality time in the kitchen, preparing some nice meals to entertain ourselves and also some friends, now and then. We tried some veggie dishes, and two of the most sucessfull were the veggie lasagna and the Agaricus-pizza! They were both great! Also, the classic codfish with punched potatoes! All of our top-meals were, of course, accompanied by a portuguese wine! Great moments! :)

After the stay with Sandra, I moved South to Belgium, at first to spend a few days with Robert Bosmans, taking Sandra along, and then to work for 1 week at the Royal Museum for Central Africa with Arnaud Henrard, on a joint paper about the genus Orchestina, tiny goblin spiders.

The stay at Gent was great, Robert and Marij were so kind to us. Robert and I in one of Gent's central streets. We also visited (in my case, a comeback) a very nice and cosy restaurant, or bistro-cafe, The Spinnekop, a place owned by a kind man who uses biological ingredients in its meals and who likes Portugal to travel with its donkeys. He even kindly showed us some photos, because when portuguese people enter his place, pleasant memories come to mind. We just came short of taking a photo with him because the place was crowded with students and he was very busy by the time we left.
We also visited Brugges. Although a very popular place for mass tourism in the region, with an historical center filled with fancy old buildings and the usual high concentration of people associated, maybe for that matter was not the best experience. The weather was fine, though. This was probably my only stay at the Benelux in which I didn't not see snow.
After heading to Tervuren to meet with Rudy Jocqué and Arnaud at the RMCA, I had 1 week of intense arachnology! We realized that what started as an Iberian/Macaronesian revision of the genus with 1 new species and resolve one or two synonyms is now turning out to be the Mediterranean/Macaronesian revision of the genus with 4 or 5 new species to describe. Though we didn't stop working, we will still need to meet again to continue this work. In the meantime, I will try to advance the most tasks possible while away from Tervuren. 
This is one of our new species.

During this week, time for some beer tasting! Beer is a big thing in Belgium, and you will probably only get to know some of the existing brands (unless you visit Belgium specifically to try beers). From those that I tried, I will mention the Carmelites and the Westmalle (I think these were Tripel beers, something special like that...). Two other highlights of this week were the climbing experience with Arnaud (he is a climbing instructor, so you can imagine he's more spider-man than I am) and the hunt for mushrooms at the Ardennes with Rudy and his wife, which was the first time that I put my knowledge as an amateur mycologist to some practical use, with some success!

The main reason why I decided to get back into writing something here was to help myself to sort my brain properly. I currently have many different works in progress and this does help the taxonomic impediment... The work on the Azorean "x-phantes" (see them in a previous post) is turning out to be a complicated issue, especially because we aimed at Zootaxa to publish two new species in an unsafely determined genus... Plus, some divergence of opinions was found in the revision process, which makes this resolution difficult.
So, in the end, 1 of the 2 papers in the "submitted" pile may yet move back to the "in prep" pile in the cartoon I sketched below, which clearly illustrates my main current works. I really need to find a way to sort out that paper, so I can seriously work in the "in prep" pile of works...
My current taxonomic impediment: 2 new species about to come out, 2 new species submitted but still being worked, probably several tens of them in the in prep. pile, and who knows what can show up in future works...? No time...

segunda-feira, 23 de abril de 2012

On the move!

I just put my butt in a bench at the airport. Today is April 21st and I will be moving back to Terceira for 1 month. Because my check-in is scheduled for something like 7:30 I decided to come some hours earlier by bus instead of asking someone a ride to take me to the airport at an insanely awful hour tomorrow.
Well, I will have plenty of time to type some news…

On the 3rd of April I went back to Madeira. The second expedition to the Deserta Grande was scheduled some months before and there I was, with Pedro, who travelled all the way back from Terceira in the Azores. After doing a slideshow presentation about the project and the needed shopping on the 4th, we were very sad to know that our trip to Desertas was postponed for 2 extra days, because that was arranged with a tourism boat for the 5th and it happened that there weren’t enough tourists to make the boat trip to Deserta Grande, so we would only go in the 7th. We took the chance given by a friend to grab a car on the 6th and to hike in a sunny and warm day in the highest summits of the island. We got to Pico do Areeiro with a combat meal in our backpacks and ready for a pleasant hike through the breathtaking rugged landscape that exists in this part of the island. The worst thing was the crowd, but well… it’s Madeira, there will be tourists everywhere. A funny thing: just in the beginning of the trail, 2 guys dressed up (and looking) like two natives from the Andes were selling random items and had one of those musical pieces that you can only find in obscure radios around midnight… Well, I’m not sure if they got mistaken in their flights, here it’s not the Andes. The hike was pleasant, of course. As usual, Pedro took some photos in the trail and me, well, you guessed: I looked for some interesting spiders. I caught mostly linyphiids, and I hope to look at these guys this upcoming week at Terceira. Sadly, the trail was far more beautiful about 3 or 4 years ago, before the huge fire that consumed a great deal of forest in the central area of the island. You still see the dead trunks of Erica. We got to Pico Ruivo, the highest summit of Madeira, around lunch time, and headed back through separate ways (at a point the main trail branches out in two separate trails until these secondary trails meet again later on).
Later, we stopped by Paúl da Serra so I could try to turn over some rocks, and sadly, the diversity was very poor, there was only Drassodes lapidosus and Haplodrassus dalmatensis, along with juveniles of Zelotes, most likely Z. aeneus. We had a good warm up for the trip to Deserta Grande on the next day.

It was raining on the 7th. We feared that this might scare off the tourists and be stranded in Funchal again, but apparently they showed up and we were off. Instead of a straight line toward Deserta Grande, the trip took a detour North of Ilhéu Chão to spot dolphins, and a large band was spotted, with maybe over 100 dolphins. It was a nice moment. The trip took place under cloudy weather, sometimes with some light rain, and a calm sea. When we got to our destination, we and Isamberto Silva rapidly joined with the rest of the bunch that was already there, 2 helpful guards of the Madeira Natural Park, 1 underwater photographer and 1 young man, who was doing some voluntary work in the Reserve.
In the first day we didn’t climb the Vereda, the steep rock stairway that leads up to Deserta Grande, but we rapidly glimpsed through a different landscape than the one we found last year. It was all yellow, the drought and the frickin’ goats didn’t allow any plants to grow. The only green we could see was the Ficus carica at the Doca that had only its highest leaves present, but if an abnormally long-necked goat shows up I guess this piece of green will go too. Indeed, these goats are vicious eaters of anything green that grows in Deserta, endemic or not. Who knows how many endemic arthropods connected to endemic flora have gone extinct by now… While last year the goats ran from us at first sight, this year they were actually found mostly around the house at the Doca.

The following day, the 8th, was to go directly to the Vale da Castanheira, to start our Hogna transect. As no night sampling would be done, we didn’t need to spend the night at “Hotel” Castanheira, which was a good thing, but also, physically demanding because we went there and back at the Doca, all in the same day, and before nightfall, to avoid the dangerous pieces of trail in Risco. We did half of the transect. We would have to come back. Like in the last year, we found the greatest density of Hogna ingens in the northernmost point of the valley, but it was not so easy to spot Hognas this year, because the drought created many crevices and fissures in the land and small animals like spiders and insects take their refuge deeper in the ground. We also found some potentially interesting novelties, like Mesiotelus and Xysticus/Ozyptila (need to check them this week). This was a sunny day. The return hike was done swiftly, with few stops. We reached the Doca just before dinner time.

In the 9th, I went up the Vereda again, which was a somewhat bold thing to do, because our first serious hike was a Castanheira hike and leg muscles felt some sting, but this time I would climb slowly and only turn over some rocks at Eira, a site just at the top end of the Vereda. I spent the afternoon looking for some faunistic and taxonomic novelties and headed down at the end of the afternoon. A smooth ride on another sunny day (today I realized that, as usual, Sandra was right, and I should have brought some sun cream with me… oh well).

In the 10th we decided to hike back to Castanheira to finish the job. Weather forecast was rather pessimistic, with threats of rain, but we decided to hike up the Vereda and check the weather up there once we got there. It was fine, with only some non frightening clouds in the sky. We went early in the morning and reached Castanheira around 10:30, a very good timing. We finished the job in a good pace and had our combat meals. We started heading back from the valley at around 2pm, at a slower pace than 2 days ago, I wanted to stop at some spots to look for spiders this time. Isamberto found the so longed-for males of a supposed endemic species of Lathys, previously synonimized with a known species, and later on, a male Dysdera. As we were finished with hiking Vereda do Risco, Isamberto asked if we wanted to know the only freshwater spring of Desertas, the Poço da Fajã Grande, after pointing to a dangerous edge of a cliff saying “there’s the trail to go there”. Both Pedro and I were not sure if it was a good thing to embark in such a voyage, since the trail was not treated and the wall itself, to which we held to, was collapsing at some points. But we reached this quite strange feature of an otherwise barren island, you could figure that out (of course) because you are reading this. The prize of such a scary hike was a male of Dysdera, that has quite an interesting look, will it be the 5th single island endemic species of Dysdera in the Deserta Grande? The answer will be known in few days.

In the 11th, time to rest the body. Weather was not the best too. A lot of Sudoku puzzles were solved (or tried to be solved)… Time to write a postcard of the Desertas to Sandra, too.

On the 12th, we had time to do some ad-hoc sampling. I had one last goal to pursue, and this would be to find and collect males of a supposed new species of Hahnia. The plan was to go to the South Plateau, where the greater abundance of this species was caught in pitfall traps the past year. I started to climb early, but Pedro had already followed before me (his aim was to do some photography, though). As I reached the top, the clouds started condensing and coming south from Madeira charged with rain. About midway from Eira to the South Plateau I had no chance but to confront some reasonable rain. I remembered to take shelter at the East guard, a ruin of a watchpost reminiscent of World War II, and found myself in close contact with a muddy area full of clay. I slipped but didn’t break or twist anything, and neither did I fell from tall heights. I had clay all over me though… I found the watchpost, and Pedro was there. While I grumped about my bad luck and he made some fun of me, we waited until the weather improved. Around noon rain was gone but clouds were still in the air, passing by. I decided to go for it, if it rained again, I would hike back to the Doca, if not then I still had an whole afternoon to lift boulders. I got lucky this time. It didn’t rain again and weather gradually improved, by 15:00 bad clouds had gone and sun was shining. And I started to get on a good mood when I started finding the Hahnia I was looking for, but after a while I got a bit less happy when I realized that all specimens that I had caught were females or juveniles. Isamberto later joined me and he too, didn’t found males… :/ I hiked back to the Doca with a bitter taste. The 13th would be the last full day in Deserta Grande and hikes were limited because some tiding up was needed. I asked around and decided to go for it, once again.

Friday the 13th. I said to myself that this would be a lucky day as I left the house at the Doca. But when I reached the South Plateau and started looking for some specimens, I realized that not only I was finding less specimens than the previous day but they were – again – all females or juveniles. I explored the South end of the island a bit more, but eventually, before 17:00 my patiente ran out and I gave myself to defeat, also because my stamina was diminishing; I could barely lift large boulders and when I did, putting them back in the original place stopped being a priority. My back was aching, and so were my arms, and my legs. I was aching. Period. So I descended back through the Vereda one last time, wondering when I would be coming back and if I ever would see those frickin’ Hahnia males (I am now depending on Isamberto’s luck and expedition schedule).

On the 14th, the ship of the Portuguese Navy showed up on schedule, filled with the crew for the next stay (and this would be a large one since 2 different research teams were there, one for arthropods and another for land snails). Due to the drought and the fact that the water tank is almost empty, we had to transport water for bathing and cooking to the tank. This was done through carrying canisters of 20 or 30 litters. Doing this, after one week of intense hiking through steep ridges and lifting boulders, is not recommended. I had to, of course, for the sake of the community welfare.
This time, unlike last year, there were no picnics and Pedro and I climb aboard the ship as soon as we could. Also unlike last year, the sea was nice and the only boring fact about this trip was stopping half hour to watch the crew inspecting some boat stopped aside the Deserta.
As we were going away, we had a last look on the Deserta’s amazingly rugged landscape.
Back in Funchal, I couldn’t help to feel something strange, something like a “wow, what is this?” when I turned left on the water handle of the shower, and then a jet of hot water fell on my back. After one week of cold shower, this seemed like an exquisite treat of the gods. It reminds me of the fact that people that are grown with the modern conforts of human technology (as I am) are no longer the resilient hominids that dwelled in the African plains (hey, remember the humans of the animation picture Wall-E?)…

Anyways, resting day apart and the next day I met with Celina Pereira, who kindly and warmly received me at her place, because my flight would be on Monday afternoon and I needed to crash down somewhere. We dropped off Pedro after a pleasant lunch at a local fish restaurant and went to have a coffee and chat a bit about life, past present and future. Later in the day, I went to meet her brother, who offered me a cup of home made sugar cane honey liquor. It was sweeeet! At dinner, a pleasant time as well, when some friends stopped by to join us.

My departure from Madeira was not done without some unexpected event, because when I got to the airport I noticed that my flight had been cancelled. TAP offered me dinner because I would be leaving not at 18:00 but at 22:00. During dinner, I had the chance to meet an engineer who was forced to sit down at my table by the gruesome gents that were serving us dinner. It was an interesting chat, with someone from a world I neglected some years ago. He joined me after dinner as well, in a waiting moment before the boarding. It was good to have someone to talk to, especially because I was playing Sudoku puzzles from 15:00 to 19:30 and was in no mood for more. I told him I would write him an e-mail. I guess it’s not everyday you get to know someone that studies spiders and declined a degree that provides a big check in the end of the month in favour of one that provides small temporary grants that are enough to survive… The price of happiness? Maybe, maybe not. Future can only tell.

In Lisbon, I had my uncle Afonso waiting to pick me up. I would sleep at his place and head home on the 7:00. Not much rest this night, but it was not so hard to get up, because I had installed a good biorhythm during Desertas, going to bed at 23:00 and waking up around 7:00. I got home, dropped my backpack full of dirty clothes, had lunch, and moved to Coimbra, where I arranged with Sara Mendes to identify some specimens from her last project. I stayed at Sandra’s place, and was warmly received by the Videira family, as usual.
On the 18th I did identification of samples from 9:30 in the morning to 20:30. It was good to get back in touch with folks at the Coimbra lab and to see a couple of friends at Uni. The smell of buildings and the life at Coimbra is unique and sometimes I sensed some nostalgic moments from my time as a BsC student.
For the 19th I intended to finish the task at hand, and that was done at about 15:00. I took some time to view some of my own ad-hoc samples from my homeland, and then left to say “hello” to some folks. I got the chance to schedule dinner with some friends and a Magic tournament with Ludgero at the local Magic club. A good time. Ludgero won the event, which was nice. J I drove him home, and headed back to the Videira residence to get some rest. Next morning, I drove back home.

This post will be put online on April 22nd, and by this time I am back at Terceira for 1 month to finish the last subjects of my Masters course and some lab work regarding some new spider species from Azores.
This will be a busy month with lab work + courses + thesis to write in my mind…

sexta-feira, 2 de março de 2012

@ The Benelux

On the 20th of January I flew to Belgium, where I would be presenting a slideshow regarding my latest works in the portuguese islands to the members of the Belgian Arachnological Society, in their annual meeting in the Natural History Museum of Brussels. After that, I would be staying with Robert Bosmans and Jan Bosselaers for few days, to advance some of the papers I have under construction, before I would visit my better-half in The Netherlands.

The presentation was light and went well. Apparently, some of the viewers were somewhat tired of slideshows with the fashion phylogenetics with DNA and cladistics that nowadays have their way into many scientific publications. That day I followed to Gent with Robert Bosmans and through the next days we took a look into some non-prioritary specimens I brought, and in the end the azorean Linyphiidae I am describing and mentioned in the previous post. Robert's expertise was very helpful (and will continue to be) and he concurred with my opinions on some tricky matters either with the referred azorean linyphiids and also with some madeiran Hahnia specimens, which pleased me.

In Gent I visited the Central Square and took a stroll around the area with Robert, it was a charming Belgian city, but I didn't grasp more than a first glance at its face. Additionally, Robert took me to the Bourgoyen-Ossemeersen nature reserve in the vicinity of the city where a big number of bird species could be found. Although these large animals are not my cup of tea, there were some interesting sightings there. Many ducks, especially. After 3 days with Robert, I headed to Antwerp where I would travel to Beerse, a small little village close to Turnhout, where I would meet with Jan Bosselaers, with whom I have a current undergoing revision of the liocranid genus Apostenus. Although we haven't set up a definitive plan for these days, it was good to sort the tasks at hand and to do some brainstorming. We spent the time contacting people at Museums, asking for material and looking at some specimens in the microscope. On Friday (27th January) we went to a site where Eresus sandaliatus was recently found along with Hans Henderickx, and we immediately found a cocoon with juveniles, but strangely there was no adult female in the corresponding burrow. We searched around for a while in a patch of Calluna heathland, but to no avail. This piece of heathland was an unfamiliar landscape to me, as the ground in more undisturbed areas contained a big number of Cladonia lichens, with large red apothecia. This made the landscape vey beautiful, although not exuberant, as no trees could be found. Jan and Hans had told me before we got there that this site will be bulldozed in some time, to build industrial facilities... I guess it's not only in Portugal that people like to put concrete everywhere.

Anyways, this week in Belgium was very nice. Not only was I received with kindness from Arnaud (who was my host in the day of the arrival) Robert and Jan, but I advanced with my works.

On Saturday 28th I headed to Antwerp and from there caught a train to Utrecht, in The Netherlands, where Sandra would be waiting for me.
I spent exactly 1 month in dutch lands trying to make things easier on us after the hard year of 2011. It was very nice. I spent most of the working hours at home working at the computer (had to deal with a boring evaluation of a Masters subject), especially advancing the paper on the azorean micronetine spiders. On the weekends we did a couple of turn-arounds, mostly on bike, which we could rent for free for a limited amount of time.

Ah! as soon as I got there, it started to snow, the first snow (and probably the only one) of the winter! White landscapes everywhere. Something new for a portuguese that only used to see snow at the top of the highest summits in Portugal.  

Some geocaching was done, of course! Two demanding multi-caches and an easy one. One of these multi-caches was done in the Castle De Haar, a nice castle West of Utrecht. We walked, walked and walked, even inside one of those mazes made of hedges, and guess what: we lost ourselves inside it for some brief moments. :P
On one day prior to this, and after the other multi-cache we went to a typically dutch pancake house. I had an apple pancake with hot chocolate, it was sooo nice to put back some energies and to enjoy the moment along a nearly frozen canal in an area with little or few concrete installations.
Additionally, I had the opportunity to play some Magic tournaments in a nearby store, and also some board games, with Sandra as well. Through this I met Álvaro, a spanish friend of Sandra's, who likes to play board games. In one day, we went for lunch with the brasilian friends of Sandra, too.

These were happy days.
I am back in Portugal now...

segunda-feira, 28 de novembro de 2011

Goodbye Azores part 2: spiders, what else?

After the first seven months in the Azores my job was little more than fieldwork logistical tasks. After the sorting of samples belonging to the BALA II project commenced, I was finally getting in touch with the native fauna on the microscope, and soon realized that the diversity was so small that nearly all Azorean endemics and native spider species could be easily recognized and distinguished from each other.
In the field, it is similarly easy to distinguish the few Azorean endemics. At canopy level (bear in mind that I only refer to samples made in native laurel forest) you find Savigniorrhipis acoreensis (Linyphiidae), Rugathodes acoreensis (Theridiidae), Sancus acoreensis (Tetragnathidae), Gibbaranea occidentalis (Araneidae), Lasaeola oceanica (Theriidae) and Acorigone acoreensis (Linyphiidae), all of them, even the tiny ones, being sufficiently different to be distinguished in the field. Just above ground level in exposed areas, you can find the nursery webs of Pisaura acoreensis, the largest endemic spider of the archipelago, especially between July and September. At ground level, several cryptic endemic species are not so easily found, like the erigonines Porrhomma borgesi, Walckenaeria grandis or Minicia floresensis, the later of which can also be found at canopy level sometimes. The small jumping spider Neon acoreensis was caught only twice bye me by direct hand sampling near the ground level.
At soil level in shady places you can also find the delicate sheet-webs of the linyphiine spider Leptyphantes acoreensis. All the mentioned spiders were supposed to be spread throughout the entire archipelago, and that sticks at the truth for all but one.
Other endemics are single-island endemics, and of these there aren’t much. Aditionally, I investigated some of them in collaboration with other specialists and at least one of them seems to be a synonymy with a species present in the Mediterranean. Other of these single-island endemics are subject to a somewhat suspicious view, being described in the basis of very small morphological differences by an author widely known for being a careless “splitter” and others remain unquestioned like Meioneta depigmentata (Linyphiidae) from Flores, Acorigone acoreensis (Linyphiidae) from São Jorge or Turinyphia cavernicola from Terceira (Linyphiidae).
Now, the new stuff:
Since these are all unpublished species, I will not write relevant information regarding their habitat and location. Please understand this.

A new species, sister of Savigniorrhipis acoreensis, was found present in one island only. Incorrectly identified material was present from previous works. This new species, more than morphologically, is ecologically separated from S. acoreensis, because it is present at ground level, while the latter is present at canopy level. This finding   provides a new look on the genus Savigniorrhipis, and hopefully it will either be validated or synonymised, but with a better analysis that that provided in its original description. Here it is the new species, it has a name, but I can’t reveal it by now as this would unmask the location of this tiny erigonine spider (on the bottom, the previously known endemic species S. acoreensis, both are females):

Also in the family Linyphiidae, one endemic species is now separated into 3 different species, one in each group of islands. The scientific work regarding these 3 species will take some time to be prepared and by now I can’t even confirm their genus with certainty.

These last fellas will be one of the major concerns regarding manuscripts in the next months for me. For these spiders I need the help on a more experienced arachnologist. When that publication sees the light of day, I will post here some further info on these little guys.

quinta-feira, 17 de novembro de 2011

GOODBYE AZORES: PART 1, the wilderness

Not long now until my return to the mainland. My stay in the Azores will end in 2 weeks and although I know that I must be back in April and May and later again for my Masters’ viva, the bulk of my Azorean experience is done. I arrived in June 1st 2010, which accounts for 1 and half year in Terceira. I sense that it was a very positive episode in my life. I will write some thoughts, while I psychologically prepare myself to get back to base…

I feel that I had a great privilege, in the sense that my work allowed me to know much more than what the regular tourist does, like the last remnants of native laurel forest in the Azores, and many of the biological entities of this particular habitat. While the word “forest” is sometimes inappropriate to describe the shrub-like appearance of native forests, especially those in high altitudes, the singularity of this landscape is remarkable. It changes the concept of what we imagine when we think of the word “forest”. Plant diversity is not great, given the size and isolation of this archipelago (as well as most other groups of organisms), but several species give the native forest an especially different view of all the other forests present in the Portuguese territory. Twisted logs of Juniperus brevifolia, topped by a bonsai-like canopy give the Azorean forest quite the looks, in all the islands where it can be found. Usually, the ground is covered with Sphagnum mosses, and it’s very comfy to sit down in a natural pillow, considering you don’t care about wetting your butt! Other dominant arboreal endemic species or subspecies are Ilex perado azorica, Laurus azorica, Vaccinium cylindraceum, Frangula azorica, Erica azorica. I will always remember the day when to do beatings in Terra Brava Reserve in Terceira I, Sandra and François Rigal had to climb Ilex trees like we were kids, otherwise we wouldn’t reach the canopy and the task at hand would be left incomplete. It’s not easy to find places where climbing the Azorean native forest is a challenge, especially when you are many kilos heavier than what you were the last time you attempted this.

If you go to Pico look in the margins of the longitudinal road that crosses the island: you may find patches of another endemic plant that is seldom found in the other islands, Euphorbia stygiana. It should be the largest euphorb in Portugal. The dead twigs and logs of this plant are the preferred house of several species of endemic insects that either are xylophagous and eat the dead wood themselves (weevil Calacalles droeuti) or mycophagous beetles of the genus Tarphius that feed on the fungi growing in the dead wood.

Unfortunately, native forest patches are relics, occupying about 0,5% of the total Azorean area. These remnants exist mostly due to the hard accessibility and high altitudes, which rendered these sites free of the reach of cattle industry. In nearly all the lowlands the landscape is very dull, with green squares of herbs separated by walls or patches of Cryptomeria japonica, an exotic tree brought to the islands to produce wood. Speaking of which, the wood is not good, but in the past decades, the regional forestry services planted this tree carelessly throughout the islands, and in very rainy seasons it is common to see some of these trees down, especially in steep places. Also, very little plant life grows in Cryptomeria forest other than Cryptomeria itself, due to the great shadow that these large trees provide.

Besides this exotic tree, the native forest is now dealing with several other invasions, being the worst cases those of Hedychium gardnerianum and Pittosporum undulatum. Both of these plants came to the Azores due to its ornamental factor, and escaped from urban areas. The former came from Asia and the latter from Australia. Larges areas are now affected by these aggressive invaders and although some eradication efforts are being made, one is very pessimistic about the future of the Azorean native forest.

To finish this, I point out 3 “Natural Places You Must See in the Azores”:

  • Morro Assombrado in Terceira: one of the most spectacular patches of native forest. The rugged geomorphology of these volcanic ridges is amazing! You must take care here, you can get lost easily, take someone experient in these places with you and be careful not to fall down one of the many holes.
  • Caldeira of Serra de Santa Bárbara: this is the largest natural reserve in the Azores, and the Caldeira, its center. To be down there in the middle of this pristine site may not be easy in the future due to the upcoming restrictions and management by the Natural Park of Terceira. Hiking down there is also not easy! Watch out for holes.
  • Morro Alto in Flores: this is the Sphagnum paradise! Once you reach the top you soon realize that the ground is made of bryophites, even if you are just following the road, because sometimes huge Sphagnum “pillows” made of several colors hang just above the road, dripping large amounts of water. If you add the lagoons and waterfalls on Fajã Grande, you can spend one week wandering about this nice little island, and you have plenty of nature to see. Being able to take a photo in a workplace like this is a privilege (yes, I just finished working).

domingo, 1 de maio de 2011

Day 16 - Spiders through Madeira

We met Isamberto around 10:30 after some shopping for tomorrow’s Cobra50 protocol in the Ponta de São Lourenço.

The first stop was in the area of São Vicente, where we stopped in a road by the north coast, that goes around some massive rocks that house a couple of interesting spiders. Maybe the most remarkable sighting here was a subadult male of Hogna maderiana. For someone who is accustomed to find Hognas under rocks and in dry places, finding a large lycosid in a retreat at more than 1 meter high, in a damp habitat, is somewhat surprising!

After this stop we decided to have lunch in a nearby restaurant.

The next destination was a patch of spectacular laurel forest in Chão da Ribeira, with huge trees creating a shady forest (til e laurus). We didn’t see many spiders, as the weather was a bit rainy, but still some interesting specimens were collected, with the head of interest being the huge Dysdera specimens we found hiding in rotting logs in their cocoons. We held our grounds for a while here, but at about 16:00 we returned through the path and jumped from stone to stone to cross a river and reach the parking spot. Next stop: Fanal, also a laurel forest area, but very different from Chão da Ribeira because this was an altitude forest. In fact, if you discard the species of tree that you face you could easily think of this as a Mediterranean oak forest, but of course that once you see an arboreal Erica species and other genus as Ilex and Vaccinium you remember that you are in a laurel forest. Here, we spent most of our time going through the bark of Erica trees, as these housed many different spiders, from Drassodes, Cheiracanthium albidulum, Macaroeris, Clubiona decora, Enoplognatha, Steatoda, Scotophaeus to Dysdera! After the “Erica-stop” we decided to move to another spot, still in the Fanal area. We continued to go up, and Isamberto’s car thermometer pointed out 5ºC. We stopped in one of the places where another remarkable species of Hogna can be found: Hogna nonanullata. This species shares some of the habit of it’s close relative H. maderiana and takes refuge also in high places in ridges, not discarding other types of refuge like rocks or bark of trees. After 2 females of this species and another of Hogna heeri were captured, we were ready to head down. Because it was still early, we stopped by in another place, in an urban area, Campanário, where we could find some common araneoids, like Cyrtophora citricola, Argiope trifasciata, Uloborus walckenaerius and some jumping spiders.

Meanwhile, the afternoon was finished and what followed next was a dinner with good company and we were ready to return to heavy field work tomorrow.

sábado, 30 de abril de 2011

Day 15 - The return

This day was certainly the most afflictive one; around 11 am more or less, the navy ship that would take us back to Madeira and bring the new team of guards arrived. With clouds in the sky and some waves in the sea but still a decent weather, we put the heaviest backpacks and materials in the ship, after some trips with the park’s boat. But, because there are some idiot friends of the navy’s commander who want to do pick-nicks in the Deserta Grande, we had to wait till the end of lunch time to leave the island. Meanwhile, the weather gets worse, the wind increases and the sea responds concurrently. Through the radio the captain of the ship ordered us to go to the ship before the weather gets even worse. To speed up this process the navy ship put their boat in the water. The first to go was the Park’s boat and I and Pedro followed in the navy’s boat. The waves were really bitchy and water was entering through everywhere, and it was only at about half the trip that someone realizes that we were sinking, the boat was cracked and was bending by the middle! We had to use the helmets of the navy boys to remove water in order to compensate for the water that was filling the inside of the boat, the worst part was that only I and Pedro had life-guard vests, given by the Park. Most of the idiots that were there for the pick-nick didn’t have vests, and there were children among them, they were stupid to go there like that and someone who let go in the island shared the stupidity! As for me, I was lucky enough not to take any high-tech device, or it would probably not survived this surrendering. Bottom line, nobody got hurt.

Then, the trip back to Funchal, what a torture! With the angry sea, I had to look for a windy place to avoid vomiting. I successfully managed to avoid this gross manifestation of the human body. We saw a bunch of pilot-whales in the way back.

As we reached Funchal, I could only think in the hot bath in the hotel and the thought that no more boat trips like this one would happen again soon!

For tomorrow, no great hikes, we would join Isamberto for a ride to some interesting spots in Madeira.