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Swimming With the Piranhas

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 7, 1998

  In Style

    Dr. Alonso Dr. Alonso in action, ant picking. (By Jed Murdoch/Conservation International)
POUSADA DO LONTRA—An oar in one hand and a backpack in the other, Leeanne Alonso of Springfield, Va., is crossing the brackish Abobral River deep in the Pantanal, the world's largest wetland. The biologist, seemingly immune to the sight of sharp teeth, is using the oar to prod waist-deep water brimming with piranhas and caimans, or Brazilian crocodiles.

"Aww, they're nothing," shrugs Alonso, 33, alarmingly cheerful and completely dismissing the B-movie monsters. "I'm just looking for stingrays. Wouldn't want to step on one and lose a foot!"

Alonso finally reaches a grassy inlet on the far side of the river, wipes the sweat from her brow and looks toward the ground. With her bare hands, she sifts through leaves. In moments her hands are covered with ants of different colors and shapes. She's being bitten; red welts appear on her hand. But Alonso looks as if she's died and gone to Heaven.

"Oh! It's Camponotus and Dolichoderus," exclaims the woman perhaps better known as Washington's Ant Lady – who already has one new species of Formicidae named after her and who maintains her vast personal ant collection at the National Museum of Natural History.

She cracks one little fellow in her fingers. "Hey, smell this!" she says, holding up ant guts. "Smells pretty rotten, huh? It's formic acid. A defense mechanism. Kinda cool, huh?"

Yeah, way cool.

"The thing is," she says, studying some markings on the guts, "I've never seen them with these." She smiles wide. "Hey! It could be a new species!"

In the global quest to catalogue new species, there are two types of personalities: those who live for the lab – and those who clearly don't. A bunch of those who clearly don't arrived here in western Brazil last month under the auspices of Washington-based Conservation International to search for new species in one of the biologically least known regions on Earth.

Botanist Robin Foster Botanist Robin Foster gathering plants in Brazil's Pantanal wetlands. (Jed Murdoch/Conservation International)
This region, an uncharted watery labyrinth the size of Virginia, is viewed as one of the last great frontiers of biological research. Oddly enough, it is closely connected to Washington – a global hub for environmental organizations, museums and universities, and one of the largest bases of the scientific personalities exploring this region and others worldwide.

Only 1.4 million species on the planet have been described, but scientists estimate there are anywhere from 5 million to 30 million left to find. And the Pantanal is living proof of how little scientists know. Just during the month-long scientific expedition here, hundreds of new species were uncovered in nets and beakers, including a new species of piranha. Add to that a new shrimp, ants and dozens of alien-looking aquatic insects.

Brazil, which boasts the world's greatest diversity of primates, plants, parrots, amphibians and more – contains a mother lode of unrecorded life. Which is why Conservation International picked the Pantanal as the site for an Aqua Rapid Assessment Project (AquaRAP), which aims to biologically map isolated regions, collecting data about habitats and new and rare species in a mission to preserve them.

"You can't preserve what you don't know," said Marcos Callisto Pereira, a Brazilian member of the conservation group's 30-person expedition. "That's why we're out here."

It can get nasty. These people face dangers ranging from dengue fever to flesh-eating parasites. Their bodies are scarred and occasionally missing organs.

"I used to think I had a death wish," says Robin Foster, one of the world's leading exploration botanists, traipsing through thorny vines on a Pantanal riverbed, muttering Latin names for plants. He almost died once after falling down a mountain in Borneo, and his liver was damaged after a run-in with a rare parasite while exploring Peru and Bolivia. "But I'd much rather be doing this than sitting in an office."

Too frequently, it can be lethal. During one venture Alonso took to Costa Rica in 1989, one expedition member – a student – become stuck in a rock crevice and was stung to death by bees. In 1993, Conservation International's Ted Parker and the Missouri Botanical Garden's Al Gentry, internationally renowned leaders in birds and botany, respectively, died in a plane crash while trying to reach a research site in the foothills of the Ecuadoran Andes.

Such incidents are viewed by scientists here in the same way the Challenger explosion was by astronauts – painfully tragic steps on the road to discovery.

"I remember Ted telling me about an incident when he was a kid – he was in fifth grade, and he spotted a bird out the window during an exam," says Debbie Moskovitz, a conservation biologist on the Pantanal expedition. "He simply got up and left the classroom to follow the bird and didn't come back to school until the next day. . . . That's when you know you're hooked, and that you may become one of the best in your field. I've heard very similar stories from almost every scientist I respect."

Take, for instance, the piranha king.

Antonio Mechado Allison, who graduated from George Washington University and worked for years as an associate researcher at the Smithsonian Institution, is standing almost totally submerged in a river that might as well be teeth soup.

Mechado, 54, is casting nets with five other scientists, trying to find examples of what he believes to be a new species of piranha – a rare find even in this unexplored territory – with a square, muscled face and a yellow underbelly. The common piranha has a red belly.

Red, yellow or purple plaid, it's still hard to believe everyone here is up to his neck in water infested with nature's notorious food processors. But Mechado insists his fangy friends have a bad rep. "Piranhas are totally innocent," he says. "Their aggressive behavior is a myth. National Geographic once came to me and tried to film aggressive piranha behavior. We took a chunk of bloody meat and put it in the aquarium to try and get some action. They just cowered in the corner."

Right. What he won't tell you immediately is that a few years back, he was dragging a piranha net in Venezuela and emerged with a horror-movie scene on his leg. "He didn't even realize he'd been bit," says Barry Chernoff, his associate of 14 years. "But his leg was covered in blood from the shin down."

Finally, Mechado's net is hauled in and the prize is there. "Aha!" he says, giddily lifting a stunningly beautiful but evil-looking fish. It has translucent purple flecks on its sides and a brilliant yellow underbelly. "This is what it's all about!"

And they make good eating, too, he says. "We'll save this one for the lab. But piranha soup is also one of the rewards of the job."

Skipping lunch, however, is Alonso. She's just found a plant covered in Dolichoderus, an ant that spits out a blue-cheese-smelling scent. She has taken out her aspirator, a device with a tube connected to each side of a beaker. One tube is for capturing the ants. And the other is for Alonso's mouth.

Yes, she has to suck them up.

"Whoa!" she exclaims after being hit with a serious wave of blue cheese. "Strong stuff!"

With the Dolichoderus and the new piranha, it's soup or salad with a main course of new life today in the Pantanal.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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