Guyana’s Kaieteur Falls

THE TINY COUNTRY of Guyana, situated on South America’s northeast coast, is called the “land of many waters” due to the large number of waterfalls, rivers, and wetlands found throughout the country. The most spectacular of all Guyana’s water attractions is the Kaieteur waterfall located about 150 miles inland on the Potaro River. At 741 feet — 5 times the height of Niagara Falls — Kaieteur Falls is the largest single drop waterfall in the world.

The falls were discovered in 1870 by British geologist and explorer Charles Barrington Brown. Nearly 60 years later, Kaieteur became the country’s first national park. Recent legislation has increased the park’s size to 762 square miles. The falls are named after an old Patamona Indian chief called Kaie. According to Patamona legend, Kaie saved the Patamona from a warring tribe by canoeing over the falls as a sacrifice to Makonaima, the great spirit.

The falls have served as Guyana’s most well known tourist attraction, and tours are led by small plane from Guyana’s capital, Georgetown. The one-hour flight takes travelers from the plains on the coast to the lush green mountains of the interior. Some travelers may choose the overland route to the falls that involves a 2-day drive from Georgetown, an 8-hour hike to the base of the falls, and a 4-hour climb up the side of the gorge. All tours include a guided tour of the forest surrounding the falls to see Kaieteur’s other natural wonders. Kaieteur sits on the eastern edge of the 1,500-foot-high Potaro Plateau that covers southeastern Venezuela, northern Brazil, and western Guyana. According to the Tourism and Hospitality Association of Guyana, at the height of the rainy season the falls span more than 450 feet and drop 35,000 gallons of water per second into the 741-foot gorge.

The ever-present mist from the waterfall has created a cloud forest that is rich with mosses, ferns, and orchids. One of the most spectacular plants is the giant tank bromeliad that grows as high as 12 feet. Bromeliads create microhabitats for frogs and insects by funneling and storing water in the center of the plant. At Kaieteur, the one-inch golden frog spends its entire life living in bromeliad tanks where it eats, swims, and breeds. Although these frogs are related to poison dart frogs, this particular species is endemic to Kaieteur and is found nowhere else on earth.

Along the forest trails, visitors can glimpse the Guianan cock-of-the rock. The males are easy to spot in the dark forest understory, because their brilliant orange feathers and orange crown stand out against the sea of green trees and plants. During mating season, small groups of males clear out a spot on the ground where they compete for female attention through lively dances. Another visible bird is the white-collared swift that makes its home on the cliffs behind the waterfall. Thousands of these insect-eating birds fill the sky at dawn and dusk as they exit and enter their roosts with amazing speed and agility.

Little is known about the mammals that live in Kaieteur. Howler monkeys, foxes, agouti, paca, tapir, red brocket deer, jaguarundi, raccoon, and collared peccary are found in the park, but are rarely seen during a short visit. A thorough study of Kaieteur fauna has yet to be completed. One of the few scientific publications focusing solely on Kaieteur covers the flora of the area. The Preliminary Checklist of the Plants of Kaieteur National Park, Guyana, was written by Smithsonian Institution scientists C.L. Kelloff and V.A. Funk

Currently Kaieteur is an undeveloped site. There is a small airstrip, a few cleared trails, and a rustic guesthouse. The Guianan government hopes to attract more visitors to the area by building full-service lodges and a visitor center. The challenge will be to make the area more accessible to tourists without detracting from the beauty of the environment.

Published in Americas magazine by Chris Hardman

March of the Desert Penguins

THE LIFE OF THE arctic penguin has been well represented in films and documentaries in recent years as 4-foot tall emperor penguins have marched across our movie screens. Now new research shows that the ancestors of these modern-day giants, were larger, sturdier and lived in the deserts of Peru during one of the warmest periods on Earth—some 36 to 42 million years ago. A team of scientists from the U.S., Peru, and Argentina has found two new species of penguins that are challenging accepted theories of penguin evolution and migration.

Peruvian paleontologist Mario Urbina-Schmitt of the Museo de Historia Natural de San Marcos in Lima, who has logged more than 20 years of fieldwork in Peru, helped to locate the fossils. Unexplored areas can lead to exciting discoveries like the new species of giant penguin named Icadyptes salasi, the third largest penguin known to science. With a beak that measures more than two times the length of its skull, Icadyptes had the longest beak of any penguin in the world. A true giant, this magnificent bird stood about 5 feet tall, was sturdy in constitution and waddled about the deserts of Peru about 36 million years ago. The researchers also found a second, much older fossil from a 42-million-year-old deposit. The earlier penguin, Perudyptes devriesi, was three feet tall, which is comparable in size to today’s second largest living penguin, the King Penguin.

Excavations in Peru also produced the first complete sample of a giant penguin skull. “We really only had ideas about what the skulls of these animals looked like,” says North Carolina State University Assistant Professor Julia Clarke, one of the lead scientists who analyzed the remains. “[The skull] is quite different from any living penguin,” she explains. With an actual skull to examine, scientists can more accurately determine what some of the earliest penguins looked like. Although both of the new species had longer and more pointed beaks than today’s birds, the giant penguin had a super-sized beak that is longer than any beak found in any living or extinct penguin. The super-sized beak had a sharp, spear-like point at the end that scientists suggest was used as a weapon to catch fish. To support this massive beak, the penguin’s neck was thick and muscular.

The age of these new fossils pushes back the date of penguin migration from southern latitudes to low latitudes millions of years earlier than previous data had indicated.  Scientists have long believed that penguins migrated to northern South America during a cold era, between four and eight million years ago, but these new fossils hail from a warm period more than 30 million years earlier. Penguin researchers were quite surprised to find penguins living in the tropics during a time period when the earth was even warmer than it is today. “We tend to think of penguins as being cold-adapted species, even the small penguins in equatorial regions today,” says Clarke, “but the new fossils date back to one of the warmest periods in the last 65 million years of Earth’s history. The evidence indicates that penguins reached low latitude regions more than 30 million years prior to our previous estimates.”

Clarke warns that although penguins might have started out living in warm climates, today’s penguins are cold adapted and sensitive to climate change. “These Peruvian species are early branches off the penguin family tree, that are comparatively distant cousins of living penguins,” she explains. “The data from these new fossil species cannot be used to argue that warming wouldn’t negatively impact living penguins.”

Published in Americas magazine by Chris Hardman