RIO CLARO, SAO PAULO, BRAZIL-- For those of you who think that the field work I do is like a vacation, just leisurely travel and comfortable conditions, imagine the following.
You are working in the baking heat, scrambling through scrubby vegetation covered in thorns. Everything you touch cuts or scratches you. The ground is crawling with things that sting or bite-- scorpions, huge spiders, centipedes, giant ants. There are probably snakes out there too. You have to make your way through this maze of cactus and thorny trees in order to find some tiny, slow-moving ants that blend easily into the background, making them hard to see. Once you find them, you will have to dig through the hard, rocky soil, maybe several feet or more, in order to find their nest.
Now imagine doing all this at night.
Such were the working conditions at our next field site, in the state of Pernambuco. We were smack in the middle of the desert-like habitat known as caatinga, an environment that exists only in Brazil.
We were fortunate to be able to stay at a field station run by the Federal Rural University of Pernambuco, on the edge of a small town called Parnamirim. We had a house to ourselves, with several bedrooms, bathrooms, and a small communal area. There was even a refrigerator, but no kitchen or any place to cook. As a result, our breakfast consisted of cold instant coffee and some crackers. For meals, we would go to the only real restaurant in town-- a truck stop on the highway that served grilled goat.
Ironically, we woke up the first morning to find that an infestation of army ants had overtaken the bedroom and part of the living room. Fortunately, they had not bothered us in our sleep, but the bedposts on my bed were teeming with blind, reddish orange ants running frantically with their mandbibles open, sensing our presence with their waving antennae.
We were forced to move to a different bedroom, which was a good thing because in the days to come the ants would completely overrun the bed I slept in that first night.
The advantage to working at night was that it was not as hot as during the day-- a cool, refreshing 96 or 97 as opposed to the 100-plus degree intensity of daytime. Also, not surprisingly, this is when all the ants come out. Unfortunately, this is when all the other creepy-crawlies come out too, and we saw our fair share of them.
We spent three nights in the field, staying out as late as 2 AM. In the end, I didn't find any of the ants I was looking for. We did find a few other interesting things, and we conducted the usual survey that will provide an interesting comparison of the ant species in this habitat compared with the others we visit.
At the end of our time in the caatinga, however, I was ready for a real vacation.