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Into the Gran Pajonal of Peru

Three young scientists survey an unknown plateau

pajonal lowlands

OCT 30, 2008:
The team files a dispatch after spending three wet weeks in unexplored cloud forest

Now up at the team's Gran Pajonal Expedition website


In late August 2008, Glenn Seeholzer, Ben Winger, and Michael Harvey left Ithaca for the remote Gran Pajonal plateau of central Peru. After two years of planning, the three former Cornell students began a three-month intensive survey of the region's bird life. Their visit marks the first time the Pajonal's grassland and forests will receive close attention by ornithologists.

Winger, Seeholzer, Harvey
Ben Winger, Glenn Seeholzer, and Mike Harvey went to Peru primed for discovery.

Peru is crammed with tropical birds, plus tours and guidebooks to help birders find them. But it was the opposite impulse that drew Seeholzer, Winger, and Harvey to the Gran Pajonal: As far as birding goes, the region is a question mark the size of Delaware.

"We might see 300 species, or we might see 1,000," said Seeholzer, just before the team departed. "We just don't know."

After four years of study at the Lab, the three young scientists departed for Peru armed with the skills to elevate their trip from birding adventure to scientific discovery. "At the Lab, they found all kinds of ways to take their passion and to make it scientific, to make it rigorous - to make it into a career," said Irby Lovette, Fuller Director of Evolutionary Biology at the Lab.

Isolation in the Clouds

The Gran Pajonal rises 7,000 feet above the Amazonian lowlands to a plateau of grassland and cloud forest stretching 4,000 square miles. The dizzying slopes cut off the Pajonal from the lowlands, and a ribbony valley along the western edge separates the massif from the main Andes.

That's the sort of isolation that in the tropics - where birds tend to live in narrow elevational bands - produces evolutionary rarities, endemic species, and unexpected refuges for birds from distant regions. That's why the team chose to explore here. They're also working with local people to put their findings to work for conservation of the area.

Made Possible by Members

The expedition is made possible by generous gifts from Lab members in support of the Redheads (student World Series of Birding team), a generous friend, a National Geographic Young Explorers' Grant, and the Explorers Club.

Seeholzer, Winger, and Harvey, along with Peruvian scientists Daniel Caceres and Fredy Vasquez, are in the field through November 2008 and will be contacting us from time to time. Follow the news at the Gran Pajonal expedition website.

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