The Australian outback, jungles, tundras, deserts, highlands, savannas and marshes. They’re the remote regions most field scientists love to explore and research, due to both the little we know about them and for the spectacularly diverse wildlife. Plants, animals and fungi in these remote environments have incredible adaptations to their specific habitats, and that will always spark our curiosity. Yet there is one place I enjoy as much as (or even more than) these biomes, and it’s right in the middle of my city. It’s the Caracas Botanical Garden.
This little corner of green immersed in the metropolis is packed with spectacular flora and fauna. One would expect that in 70 hectares (173 acres for those of you who still refuse to adopt the metric system) you’d find low diversity; this is far from the truth. With over 1700 plant species, the associated wildlife diversity/density is quite high. Yet I’m interested in one specific, albeit very broad, group: the arthropods. Since my first visit to the CBG in 2005 I’ve photographed over a thousand different species of them, and each time I go I see something new; this never ceases to amaze me.
I started my Masters just a few months ago, and for my dissertation I want to make a catalog of the arthropod taxa living there and in which area they can be found, among other things like pest/medically important species present and their control, and teaching the general public about the importance (and awesomeness) of arthropods. There’s also an idea for a field guide to the most common arthropods (with pictures, given that I dabble in photography), but that’s still a long way off.
I’m aware of the herculean challenge that I plan on undertaking. I know that I probably won’t get much further than subfamily for the tens of thousands of specimens I collect, save the few emblematic species like Morpho menelaus. I’m also aware that I will need loads of time and an exorbitant amount of coffee to compile, organize, crunch, double-check and then present the data I collect. I’m also quite realistic and know that I will only manage to collect a fraction of the arthropod fauna in such a diverse environment. Having my field work so close to home/work might bring up other problems, eloquently explained by Terry McGlynn over at Small Pond Science. Yet I still want to do this.
My goal is not to have the Definitive Guide to the Arthropods of the Caracas Botanical Garden, but merely a stepping stone for future studies; I want there to be a reference for insect-plant interactions studies; I’d like for people who wish to study population fluctuation, mating patterns, ethology, ecology, biology, taxonomy and anything even tangentially related to arthropods or urban wildlife to have some idea of what one can expect to find in this little biodiversity hotspot. I also wish to emphasize the importance and value of having such a vast array of species right there, in the city. There’s no need to travel hundreds of kilometers or hike El Ávila (the mountain/national park that borders Caracas) for hours to see cellphone-sized spiders, impressive beetles and stunning butterflies. There is little to no information on the wildlife here, which makes this place an excellent research site.
Yes, visitors will be more interested in the colorful tanagers or the occasional sloth than in arthropods. To most people, they’re the crawling things that when stepped on, they go “crunch”. And that’s precisely the group I want them to learn about and appreciate.