Wednesday, January 13, 2021

The importance of fieldwork

White-fronted Ground Tyrant (Muscisaxicola albifrons) with crane fly larvae and adults

Since first visiting Quelccaya in 2003, the objective of our work has been to accurately establish the summit climate, and quantitatively document how climate is recorded by the glacier - illuminating what we can learn about climate from ice cores. These efforts are documented in publications, with more still in preparation.

Working at high elevation on the glacier requires a bit of physical exertion (e.g., digging snowpits, wrestling with AWS tower extensions), as well as mental concentration (e.g., electrical wiring, datalogger programming). In spite of these requirements - or perhaps due to them - we also spend time at Quelccaya simply making observations, of both abiotic and biotic features and processes. These 'distractions' were often fascinating, including ice caves, streamflow and sediment transport, atmospheric convection, and abundant wildlife.

Our avian observations revealed behaviors previously unknown, some of which we have published (see here, here, and here), while others remain only partially understood. Another observation remained only in notes and photographs until recently, involving a fly. Since 2004, we encountered a large fly species at the AWS, typically clustered beneath the snow surface in proximity to the tower tubing and buried instrument enclosures. During transition-season visits in April and October 2014, we observed the flies on the snow surface at our moraine camp (5,200 m), crawling around in our tents, and being eaten by birds.

We posted photographs of this fly species on iNaturalist, where it remained unidentified for five years. In November, Russian entomologist Dmitry Gavryushin observed the report and took interest. He was able to identify the crane fly to species, based on a speciman from Bolivia described by prominent crane fly taxonomist Charles P. Alexander, who was affiliated with the UMass Entomology Department from 1922-1959. The coincidences continue, for the type locality for Dicranomyia (Dicranomyia) perexcelsior (Alexander) is Chacaltaya Glacier in the Cordillera Real of Bolivia. This is where Niethammer (1953) first described an association between Andean glaciers and our "Glacier Bird" (White-winged Diuca Finch; Idiopsar speculifera).

Our Quelccaya crane flies are the highest-elevation observations from anywhere in the world, which came to the attention of Pjotr Oosterbroek at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in The Netherlands. Pjotr's enthusiasm and initiative drew in Christophe Dufour from the Muséum d’histoire naturelle in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, and resulted in our latest publication, on high-elevation crane flies. Working with these two was an absolute pleasure.

Our experience at Quelccaya demonstrates that casual observations from seldom-visited, extreme environments are often invaluable. When making them outside of one's field of expertise, one can never know just how important they might be. This is especially true during the rapid environmental changes underway. Chacaltaya Glacier, for example, no longer exists; no one will ever again observe crane flies or Glacier Birds there. Sadly, this will likely also be the case at Quelccaya before the end of the century (Yarleque et al., 2018).