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Amazon Expeditions

Amazon Expeditions: My Quest for the Ice-Age Equator

Paul Colinvaux
Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 384
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  • Book Info
    Amazon Expeditions
    Book Description:

    In this vivid memoir of a life in science, ecologist Paul Colinvaux takes his readers from the Alaskan tundra to steamy Amazon jungles, from the Galapagos Islands (before tourists had arrived) to the high Andes and the Darien Gap in Panama. He recounts an adventurous tale of exploration in the days before GPS and satellite mapping, and a tale no less exhilarating of his battle to disprove a hypothesis endorsed by most of the scientific community.

    Colinvaux's grand endeavor, begun in the 1960s, was to find fossil evidence of the ice-age climate and vegetation of the entire American equator, from Pacific to Atlantic. The accomplishment of the task by the author and his colleagues involved finding unknown ancient lakes, lugging drilling equipment through uncharted Amazon jungle, operating hand drills from rubber boats in water 40 meters deep, and inventing a pollen analysis for a land with 80,000 species of plants. Colinvaux's years of arduous travel and research ultimately disproved a hotly defended hypothesis explaining bird distribution peculiarities in the Amazon forest. The story of how he arrived at a new understanding of the Amazon is at once an adventurous saga, an account of science as it is conducted in the field, and a cautionary tale about the temptation to treat a favored hypothesis with a reverence that subverts unbiased research.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15009-4
    Subjects: General Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xvii-xx)
  5. Prologue: Trial in Alaska
    (pp. 1-11)

    Small lakes, generally no more than thirty meters (say a hundred feet) deep, can be cored by hand, using a device called a “Livingstone sampler,” named after its designer, Daniel Livingstone. Dan had earned his doctorate, and designed his sampler, for pioneering work in lakes of the Arctic coastal plain north of the Brooks Range in Alaska, in his day before oil (1950s) an exceedingly remote region. His lake cores had yielded the first long pollen history of remote Arctic tundra since the last ice age.

    I learned to core from the master himself in the Bay lakes of North...

  6. 1 The Reason Why
    (pp. 12-24)

    The reason why was diversity. Why are there so many species in the tropics? This has long been one of the knottiest problems of ecological theory. Life gets richer as you go from temperate regions toward the equator. In warmer climes there are more kinds of living things than in the colder north; many, many more kinds. But why should this be?

    The temptation is to say, “Obvious! It is nicer in the tropics; more productive; wet and warm; no winter; living is good and lots of species take advantage of it. Next question please.” But that answer is no...

  7. 2 The Galapagos That Darwin Knew
    (pp. 25-56)

    I began my transect of the American equatorial lands with the Galapagos Islands. No thought here of starting at one end of the transect and working to the other, I’m not that organized. The Galapagos were simply the easiest place to begin; also the sexiest. I had to write the grant proposal first, my first as an independent investigator, it had better be neither grandiose nor mundane, but it must be attractive. The Galapagos fit that bill nicely.

    The islands also fit my personal bill of being “easy,” easy that is in the technical sense. Where the Amazon had 80,000...

  8. 3 Galapagos Climate History: The Eastern Pacific and the Ice-Age Amazon
    (pp. 57-72)

    The Galapagos results were quite wonderful. El Junco, the lake that reviewers had said did not exist, not only existed, but had probably done so, on and off, since near the start of the last ice age. The whole ice-age story was there in outline in the 13–15 m columns of mud that were our longest cores. All we needed was the wit and technique to read it.

    From Genovesa crater we had a shorter story, probably only of the last 6,000–8,000 years, but potentially marvelously detailed. A perennial hope of paleoclimatologists is finding banded sediments, and in...

  9. 4 Pleistocene Refuge and the Arid Amazon Hypothesis
    (pp. 73-79)

    The Pleistocene, literally “the last of the recent,” is the top bit of the geological section, the bit spanning the million years or so before the short warm period in which we live. Like all geological periods, the Pleistocene is formally described by its included fossils, and begins with certain extinctions seen in an exposure in Italy. That is all the term “Pleistocene” really means. But we northerners think of the Pleistocene in terms of the terror that comes by ice. However correct our geological minds, “Pleistocene” also tacitly means “the epoch of ice ages.”

    Talking about the “Ice-age Amazon”...

  10. 5 The Republic of the Equator
    (pp. 80-99)

    As the warshipJambelibrought us back from the Galapagos in 1966, we planned our first go at the mainland. We had a coring rig already in Ecuador, free of the costs of transport and of that peril by customs that haunts expeditions with heavy equipment. David Greegor, who had led the Santiago (James) Island detachment, needed a thesis topic; the history of an Andean lake should do nicely. I counted my pennies, staked him with the balance, and left him with a coring rig in Guayaquil.

    Dave’s mission was to core a lake, any lake, in the Andes; and...

  11. 6 Refuge Theory Expands in Brazil
    (pp. 100-104)

    Brazilian scientists had been collecting in the Amazon long before Haffer. They were already well aware that many species could be found in some parts of the great forest but not in others, particularly animals likely to be sensitive to climatic change, like amphibians and reptiles. They, too, had strong suspicions that ice-age climates had something to do with the species distribution, suspecting arid intervals. P. E. Vanzolini’s thesis on the subject, published in 1970, reflected previous years developing the theme, which he continued to do in ever more scholarly detail during his career as a professor at the University...

  12. 7 The Paradigm and the Prophet
    (pp. 105-122)

    In 1980 refuge theory was about to become aparadigm, and thereby hangs a tale.

    The word “paradigm” has taken on a special meaning in science, rather loosely based on its roots as special meanings often are, but clear and powerful to the practitioners of science. Crudely translated it means, “You had better believe it because everybody else does.”

    Thomas Kuhn had given this new meaning to an old word, explaining by it the very human property of scientists to think alike until devastating new data force them all to change their minds together. Then “everybody else” believes the new...

  13. 8 Amazon’s Bitter Lakes
    (pp. 123-129)

    The decision to throw the resources of my laboratory at the Amazon lowlands until I had the answer did not stipulate that I leave immediately for Brazil. Ecuador had Amazon lowlands too, and in Ecuador I had a base. Remember Clausewitz: “First secure your base.” Miriam once again led the charge.

    The Amazon third of Ecuador is a tongue-shaped chunk east of the twin cordilleras. Most of it is just 300–200 meters (900–600 feet) above sea level. Several of the major tributary rivers of the Amazon system flow through these lowland forests of Ecuador, significant rivers to northern-bred...

  14. 9 On the Trail of Francisco de Orellana
    (pp. 130-144)

    The National Science Foundation gave me the go-ahead to finish the job in Ecuador. Striking lucky to reach ice-age sediments would be wonderful, but go anyway. Even Holocene histories of climate change (or no change) at the Amazonian equator would be a plum, together with as detailed a limnology of these unknown lakes as we could manage. But I knew, and I am sure the NSF panel knew, that an ice-age record was the goal. My original quest, started at Yale so long before, was ice-age climate data to help with the diversity problem. And looking over everyone’s shoulder, including...

  15. Gallery
    (pp. None)
  16. 10 Ice-Age Forest Found
    (pp. 145-158)

    Kam-biu Liu was from Hong Kong, with the English language as much a native tongue as Mandarin. His Ph.D. in geology from the University of Toronto was based on Arctic pollen analysis, just as mine was, thus giving him technical qualifications for the Amazon project fully equal to my own; two Arctic pollen analysts blundering into the Amazon, perfect. But he lacked one essential qualification: he could not swim. A boyhood in the Hong Kong of those days apparently did not include swimming. I have made it an iron rule that members of my lake expeditions are swimmers. I do...

  17. 11 Pollen, Anacondas, and the Cool, Damp Breeze of Doubt
    (pp. 159-170)

    I had met Mark Bush while in England on a professional visit, when academic friends had knocked our heads together as likely collaborators. We clicked. Kambiu Liu had left me for his first tenure-track appointment, and Mark joined me in Columbus as postdoctoral fellow in Kam-biu’s place shortly thereafter. This opportune arrival started the long journey that solved the pollen problem. Mark’s doctoral thesis involved pollen analysis in Britain of an unusually precise kind, letting him redesign an old pollen trap to one gorgeously preadapted to our needs.

    Mark’s traps were simple and cheap, such that we could set them...

  18. 12 The Paradigm Strikes Back
    (pp. 171-183)

    Mera changed things. Seeing the Liu and Colinvaux paper inNature, I felt like a card player laying down a “full house,” and quietly sitting back in his chair. Rain forest in glacial times in the Amazon lowlands, the very first record. Rain forest, familiar enough, but made all the more provocative by expanding its generous and catholic list of species to find room for a few trees and shrubs of cooler places.

    San Juan Bosco was to spread the find down the length of Ecuador, for the two sections were but a single find in an Amazon scheme of...

  19. 13 The Adventure of the Darien Gap
    (pp. 184-191)

    Ever since the early 19th century when John Keats wrote those lines, English-speaking people have felt the magic of Darien. It has been my wretched fate to have been coached by the inhabitants of those parts that it was not Cortez who first saw the Pacific but Balboa. I admit that this is what the history books say too. Yet Keats must have been right, because “Balboa” does not scan. With the ultimate proof of great poetry Keats made Cortez a symbol of Darien adventure, to add to less poetical exploits of Cortez leading to the sack of Mexico and...

  20. 14 The Adventure of the Floating Forest
    (pp. 192-207)

    Now for Brazil, and the heart of the Amazon. A history of the vastness of the Amazon plain was critical for the prime purpose that sent me to the equator from Yale, by this date, all of twenty years earlier. Here was the astonishing diversity that drove a generation of ecologists. It was also the land where the paradigm of aridity and forest refuges had developed and must be tested. In Ecuador and Panama we had found tropical forest alive and well in glacial times, but with an unmistakable stamp of a great reshuffling of species populations signifying cooling, not...

  21. 15 The Adventure of the Customs Shed
    (pp. 208-219)

    The existence of inselbergs had been known for more than a century, but mostly as travelers’ tales. Arthur Conan Doyle, author of Sherlock Holmes, based his adventure storyThe Lost World¹ on the early reports, creating an imaginary inselberg with dinosaurs of the Jurassic living on top, cut off from the modern world. When published in 1912, this tale was the first incarnation of the “jungle with dinosaurs” theme so lately taken up byJurassic Park.

    Doyle’s reconstruction of an inselberg got it wrong. He had the land gradually sloping up over many miles to about three thousand feet (a...

  22. 16 The Adventure of the Inselberg That Leaked
    (pp. 220-233)

    The only vehicle for hire in the little town of San Gabriel da Cachoeira was a bus, quite a big unwieldy bus. But to get eight people and our appalling baggage to the canoe landing for Six Lakes Hill, it should do nicely. Paulo hired it. For a second time we played at being stevedores; slippery plank from ship to shore, across the dock and hoist your load through a hole made by removing the escape window of the bus, where those within found room for it on one of the seats.

    At the last village on the road only...

  23. 17 Ice Ages from an Amazon Inselberg
    (pp. 234-244)

    Harold Urey won the Nobel Prize discovering the heavy isotope of hydrogen: deuterium. But he then separated isotopes more exciting for we of the ice-age earth, the stable isotopes of oxygen,18O and16O, noting that their roles in chemical reactions depend on temperature. He gave us our thermometer. He deserved another Nobel, but this is against the rules. A passage I loved reading to my students was Urey’s postmortem on an animal that had been dead a hundred million years, based entirely on the oxygen isotope ratios of its annual growth rings.This Jurassic Belemnite records three summers and...

  24. 18 Two Thousand Fathoms Thy Pollen Lies
    (pp. 245-251)

    The Amazon basin is one giant watershed, the largest on earth. Over this huge watershed, the great diversity of pollen from the Amazon forest is moved by water after reaching the ground near the parent tree, just as it is over the smaller watershed of a lake. These watershed wanderers always account for the long lists of tree names. They do not come as the pollen rain that hay fever sufferers or pollen analysts of the temperate lands know. The contributions of these diverse watershed wanderers to the pollen sum are a blessing given to tropical pollen analysts by the...

  25. 19 Maicuru, the Last Adventure
    (pp. 252-266)

    Maicuru was the last site: the last promised in my grant proposals, the last remaining from Paulo’s talking to the men ofRadambrasil, the last best chance for me to include the eastern Amazon in my equatorial data set.

    It was also the last in the “hurry up and get it done” sense. In the year 1998 I was about to leave the Smithsonian, with its isolation in a small institute in Panama, and my wife and I had already put our condo, perched over the Bay of Panama, on the market. It was then thirty-four years since I had...

  26. 20 Paradigm Coup de Grace
    (pp. 267-294)

    The title of this chapter is taken from a comment by Stephen P. Hubbell upon theAmazonianaarticle described below, “I really enjoyed your coup de grace of the Haffer refuge model. It was really fun to read.”

    Scholars regularly get letters from editors asking them to review manuscripts. Anonymous, unpaid, unrewarded reviewing is one of the dubious privileges of academic life, better for the intellect and self-regard than grading term papers but even more time-consuming. This invitation was different. The manuscript was due to be published whatever reviewers said. It was written by two of the biggest names in...

  27. Notes
    (pp. 295-308)
  28. Index
    (pp. 309-328)