5 - 18 November 1996
STAFF NEWSPAPER OF IMPERIAL COLLEGE OF SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY AND MEDICINE
NETSPEDITION: A VIRTUAL TRIP TO THE AMAZON
A journey to the heart of the Venezuelan Amazon region this summer was the first scientific expedition ever to take place simultaneously on the internet.
The team spent several weeks carrying out butterfly biodiversity studies in areas only accessible by canoe, coming face to face with native tribes who were not always amicable. Regular reports and photographs were sent electronically, using a digital camera and a satellite 'phone, to scientists in London who were able to immediately pass back their advice and guidance via the internet.
The expedition leader was Dr Matthew Lewis, who finished a PhD in cement chemistry in April and is now a research assistant. "I had always wanted to do an expedition while I was at Imperial. I was also very interested in the internet," he explained. "I thought it would be excellent if we could combine the two somehow."
Matthew carried out an internet search and discovered that two separate American teams had already conducted expeditions on the worldwide web. "But neither of them had a scientific objective," he explained. "Nor were the expeditions particularly remote. I wanted to do something a bit more extreme and also more useful - that's when the scientific objective came into it," said Matthew.
The four other team members from Imperial were undergraduates Andy Mogensen and Richard Percival; Tony Heenan, who is finishing a PhD in aeronautics, and Mike Hurley, a research assistant in Biochemistry. They were accompanied by Jesus Camacho, a professor from the University of Zulia, in Maricaibo, Venezuela and Eliezar Rincones, a native Indian guide from the Amazon region.
The two scientists based in London were butterfly expert Andrew Neild, who is in the process of writing a book called Butterflies in Venezuela, and Open University PhD student Byron Wood. For everyone else who followed the expedition electronically, the 'adventure log' probably generated the most interest, said Matthew. "Tens of thousands have logged in. Even now we are getting e-mails from people all over the world," he said. The data was placed on the internet by Dr Peter Lee and Kate Harris, both in the Department of Materials.
In Caracas at the start of the expedition, one week was devoted to buying food, sorting out permits and dealing with overzealous bureaucracy. Then the team hired a small bus to take them to Puerto Ayacucho, known as the capital of the Amazon region. "That's where the last road stops, and after that there's nothing," said Matthew. "The only way you get further down is by river."
The next stage of the journey was in a large dug-out canoe with an engine called a bongo, which carried them against the flow of the Orinoco River as far as the tiny village of Tamatama, close to the mouth of the Casiquiare River, a tributary of the actual Amazon River. There, the team stopped to construct the three collapsible canoes which would take them even deeper into the rainforest.
The team wanted to carry out a butterfly survey at the first village on the Casiquiare River, which was populated by the Yanomami tribe. "They are one of the last tribes still living in an indigenous way," said Matthew. Their research had told them the Yanomamis would expect gifts and they had bought beads and cloth ready to give away.
However, the villagers soon made it clear they wanted far more than they had been given. "They had blow pipes and threatened to use them," said Matthew. "It was a pretty dangerous situation." By the second day the team knew they would have to make their escape and at first light four of the team members paddled away with their most important belongings. The tribe soon awoke and the remaining team members had to pretend they all had to leave - one of them was ill and needed a doctor. They gave the tribe money and after much argument managed to get away unpursued.
The expedition continued along the 320 kilometre river and visited four more villages where each tribe was very friendly, enabling them to concentrate on collecting data by setting up and baiting traps. "We were recommended to use rotting fruit to bait them, but most of the foliage was trees and vines and shrubs. Even the Indians don't grow that much fruit," said Matthew. The team resorted to rotting fish and this was far more successful. "A lot of butterflies are attracted to the amino acids that you get with this rotting material," he explained.
After the Casiquiare River the expedition paddled to San Carlos where they had to use another bongo to travel up river. This was followed by an overland journey through a clearing where they stopped to carry out another study. Unable to catch a 16 centimetre butterfly with a fluorescent blue metallic sheen because it kept flying too high for their nets, they contacted the scientists for advice. "Andrew Neild wrote back saying he knew the species and asked if we had any tin foil," said Matthew, explaining that the butterflies think the glistening foil is another butterfly in the sun and are attracted to it. "It came to it and turned away. Then it came straight down to the tin foil and with one swoop of the net Andy got it," he said. A final canoe back to their starting point completed the 1,200 kilometre circular journey.
Matthew stressed that having constant interaction with the experts gave them access to knowledge they would never have discovered for themselves, making the expedition far more successful than it would have been. He believes that expeditions on the internet are going to become increasingly popular. "That's how things are going to take off in the future," he predicted.
The expedition received funding or sponsorship from the Exploration Board, the Harlington Trust, the Convocation Trust, California Microwave, Sony, Silva, Merck and Livewire. To experience the expedition on the worldwide web, contact http://sunsite.doc.ic.ac.uk/netspedition.
(c) Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine, 1996
Last Revised: 1 November 1996