What's an AquaRAP?
AquaRAP is short for Aquatic Rapid Assessment Program. The program is designed to quickly collect, analyze, and disseminate scientific data on freshwater aquatic ecosystems for use in conservation planning. Field expeditions typically last only three to four weeks, while data analysis and report preparation is expected within six to eight months after the expedition.
AquaRAP teams survey such taxonomic groups as fishes, macro-crustaceans, aquatic insects, aquatic plants, and plankton. The scientists also study water chemistry and hydrology. Focusing on entire watersheds, the team studies the biological diversity, degree of endemism, uniqueness, and ecological connections within each system.
Scientists carefully choose specific survey sites by consulting satellite imagery and overflights before a trip. In the field, they survey specific taxonomic groups as well as indicator species, taxa whose presence can help identify a habitat type or its condition. AquaRAP provides a primarily qualitative assessment to determine how a system is faring and what threats it faces. This survey usually precedes long-term scientific inventory and research which is often based on the data collected by the AquaRAP team.
Why are scientists focusing on the Caura River Basin?
As one of the most pristine ecosystems in South America, the Caura Basin and its inhabitants remain a tantalizing mystery to conservation biologists. The lack of human activity in the region leads the team to believe the Caura is a thriving ecosystem that may even contain new species.
Located in southern Venezuela, the Caura comprises 5 percent of the entire country and supports the region's 15,000 inhabitants. The aquatic ecosystems provide freshwater, food, transportation and habitat for local communities as well as for wildlife. However, serious threats exist from a proposed water diversion project, encroachment by miners and deforestation for agricultural pursuits.
What species will the biologists study?
Previous studies of the Caura region are few in number, but they indicate that high levels of biodiversity endemism (species found nowhere else) exist. Approximately 257 bird species, 208 mammal species and up to 450 fish species are part of this unique ecosystem. This AquaRAP survey will likely yield high numbers of terrestrial and aquatic organisms, and may even uncover some species that are new to science.
The AquaRAP team will conduct rapid surveys of aquatic organisms, including fishes, shrimp, crabs, plankton, zoobenthoths, and riparian vegetation, as well as a general survey of ecology and geomorphology. Team limnologists (fresh water scientists) will also evaluate water, chemistry and quality.
What will be done with data collected?
AquaRAP aspires to make the results of the surveys available to decision-makers, scientists, conservation groups, and the general public as "RAPidly" as possible. The challenge for AquaRAP participants is to cover vast areas in a short amount of time to consolidate data in order to complete apreliminary report before leaving Venezuela.
In addition, the data will be used to generate a final report, which will make recommendations regarding the conservation and management of these critical resources. The data collected by CI will be used to establish a long term monitoring program for the region.
A member of the indigenous community is accompanying the AquaRAP team to work with the scientists to create ways that the data can be made useful to the people who live there.
What is life like on the expedition?
According to RAP Coordinator, Jensen Montambault, the Caura expedition will be "the most rugged AquaRAP ever!" This is mainly due to the site's remote location. After flying over the site earlier this year she said, "all you can see is the thick forest canopy for miles around. Since the Ye'kwana and Sanema people mainly use the river for transportation, there are absolutely no roads."
Scientists will be living under primitive conditions during the expedition, traveling in dugout canoe by day and camping along the river's edge most nights. Whitewater rapids will pose the greatest danger to the team, therefore team members will wear life jackets while in the canoes. A helicopter will transport the team down the Salto Parà, the largest waterfall in the river system which is not navigable by boat.
The team carries a satellite phone for emergency communication.
Throughout the expedition, care will be taken not to disturb indigenous communities, who have graciously permitted this study of their homeland.
IN DEPTH: Be sure to read the field dispatches to learn more about life on the expedition.