Thursday, May 21, 2009

Amazonian Expeditions OR Why I could never be a biologist

Journey of the Pink Dolphins - Sy Montgomery
A Parrot without a Name - Don Stap

At one point in Sy Montgomery’s expedition in the Amazon it seems as if every other hut on the river is inhabited by a grad student. Scary. Some tag turtles, some count fish, some get bored out of their mind and others get sick (has a ring to it, doesn’t it?).

Montgomery’s journey to find the Amazonian pink dolphins was not ‘scientific’ but rather a voyage lead by the imagination and emotion. That’s what makes her book so appealing even though, the pink dolphin itself, is so often elusive. After all, as the author says in the book (in a passage, I can’t for the life of me find right now): “to follow” doesn’t only mean to pursue in a linear fashion; it also means “to be guided by”, “to grasp the meaning”, “to engage”, “to take as model”. Her pursuit of these primitive dolphins is more telepathic and poetic. When the author borrows radio antennae to track dolphins that have been tagged, she comes up with nothing. Almost as if the animals were trying to tell her “that’s not the way to get in touch with us”. Yet her dreams are filled with dolphins. When she finally gets a chance to swim with them – to engage them on their own terms, on their own realm, that’s when a real interspecies conversation takes place. This is a beautiful book for all who dream of following their own familiar – a journey mapped by little else than a humble intuition of an ancient bond.

“A Parrot without a Name” also speaks of something ancient: human obsession with naming, cataloguing and “understanding”. That which is unnamed is nonexistent. Surely some Greek philosopher said something along those lines. Just as the verb “to follow” has many meanings so too does “to understand”. In a biology dictionary, though, I’m afraid it mostly means “to take apart in order to catalogue and name” rather than the actual meaning of “to have sympathy or tolerance”.

For those of us ignorant of what goes on in an actual ornithological expedition (to Peru near the Brazilian border) these days, this will be something of a shocker. Yup, they kill birds. Loads of birds. Scientists will set up mist nets (the kind I grew up watching in nature documentaries as being the fare of evil bird smugglers) to catch birds, including many that may not be of interest in that particular case. If they are of interest, the scientist will perform a maneuver called “squeezing” where force is applied by the fingers to the bird’s thorax until he stops breathing. If the specimen is large a pentobarbital shot is given. They also shoot them right from the trees. Since the obvious purpose is to conserve plumage and shape (although sometimes also internal organs), ornithologists will have to kill numerous birds, since some are damaged by the bird shot.

Author Don Stap makes a proficient enunciation of all the reasons killing birds is important to science. Guess what? I didn’t think even one was reasonable. And the way he felt compelled to go through them, tells me he probably wasn’t either. Anyways, the holy grail of ornithologists today is to discover a new species (yup, that’ll really make you a superstar, apparently). But to get your discovery approved by the scientific establishment (who resemble Kang & Kodos, or so I’m told) you Must Bring Proof. Dead Proof. Many Dead.

Stap followed an expedition in 1985 that hit the mother load: on his last day on camp, someone shot a couple of small green birds, that didn’t exactly fit any of the described species of the area. They ended up shooting 18 birds. In 1991 the Amazonian Parrotlet (Nannopsittaca dachilleae) finally became a recognized species. It’s such a rare species that for awhile it was believed they had gone extinct. But what the hell – there are 18 specimens stacked up in a university somewhere.
We can all breathe a sigh of relief. Where would we be without Science after all?

My advice? Take a picture. Seeing as museum specimens are taken care of, it will definitely last longer.

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