Caves, mud, frogs, thorns, parrots, mosquitoes, Mayan artifacts, pounding rain, solitude, blisters, prehistoric plants, and the list goes on and on….did I mention mud? Expeditions into the jungle are always a mixed bag. The columns of positives vs. negatives are usually both quite long. Nonetheless, few return from such trips without saying something about how amazing the experience was, and indeed that was exactly the conclusion I came to after my most recent expedition.
On February 20, 2014, Helen Campbell (Operations Manager) and I (Kevin Wells, Research Coordinator) had the fortunate opportunity to represent Ya’axché Conservation Trust as we accompanied a professional research team of botanists from the Montgomery Botanical Center in Miami and Belize Botanical Gardens in Belize on a 4-day expedition into the Columbia River Forest Reserve in southern Belize. The goal was to collect samples from a particular species of extremely slow-growing cycad plant, Zamia decumbens. This species had formerly been listed as Zamia prasina, and this discovery of decumbens as a new species has quickly circulated in the scientific community. These plants are highly prized by collectors and despite having been on earth since the Jurrasic period (in abundance), some populations are extremely small. In fact, there are estimated to be just several hundred Zamia decumbens specimens left in the wild. Therefore, the goal of this expedition was to collect samples for DNA analysis, to catalog new populations, and also to collect seeds in order to expand an ex-situ collection of the species, a necessary measure for an organism so rare.
One of the unique characteristics of this plant, and one that made this expedition much more fascinating, is the fact that they only live at the bottoms of sinkholes or at the entrances of caves (or very rarely, on top of shaded hills) where there is essentially no rainfall and very well-drained soil. For this reason they are called the Sinkhole Cycad. So our survey sites just happened to be places that would have taken our breath away anyway.
In short, the expedition was a definite success, almost as much as the one conducted in 2008 in which Z. decumbens was discovered to be a new species. Leaflets were successfully collected for DNA analysis, seeds were collected for the ex-situ collection, and potentially best of all, a new cave was explored containing about 50 specimens, which, for a plant whose total population in the wild is probably in the range of 300-500, was a fantastic find. Some had leaves over 3-4 feet long, belonging to plants that are likely hundreds of years old.
And no expedition to the jungle would be complete without a bit of side-project surveying, in this case the goal was reptile and amphibian populations.
The challenges of the expedition were more than made up for by the places we visited, which left us speechless, and the successful high quality work which was carried out by the professional botanists. We would like to sincerely thank Patrick Griffith, Michael Calonje, Willie Mesh, Freddy Tut, Darius, Valentino, and everyone else who helped on the expedition.
By Kevin Wells
Ya’axché Conservation Trust
Punta Gorda, Belize