Our Suriname adventure was all due to the pioneering voyage of Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) in 1699. Just imagine a woman in this era - at age 52! - traveling by ship from Amsterdam to Suriname with her daughter Dorothea! I could write a dozen blog entries about this German born naturalist and illustrator's amazing accomplishments. But instead I will highly recommend that you pick up a copy of Kim Todd's wonderful "Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis" (Harcourt, 2007) and read Madame Merian's story. She was particularly interested in metamorphosis, which at the time was unknown.
For tarantula enthusiasts the Merian painting of an arboreal tarantula (Avicularia) eating a bird from her monumental 1705 work Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium that was particularly ground-breaking. Merian spent two years in Suriname before malaria forced her back to Europe and the art in her epic book depicts her travels. Linnaeus used her painting to describe Avicularia avicularia and the term "bird-eating spider" was born. Today the German word for tarantula is Vogelspinnen, literally bird spider as is the term for theraphosid spiders in other languages.
Anyway, here endeth the history lesson. Feed your brain and pick up Todd's book. It sits atop one my library shelves next to a modern reprint of her Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium - the Taschen publication Insects of Suriname. These are among the favorites of my collection.
Back to our field trip ... it was Merian's work that led us to Suriname as all of our expeditions have a historical bent due to being chosen by a man I dubbed "the arachnohistorian", Andrew M. Smith.
Suriname during Merian's visit and for a great part of its history was a plantation colony. It is best known as a Dutch colony, but also was under British rule for a time. The population of Suriname is largely descended from West African slaves that worked these plantations. The planters of the colony relied heavily on African slaves to cultivate the coffee, cocoa, sugar cane and cotton plantations along the rivers. Once slavery was abolished, contract workers from northern India, China and Java followed. Andrew was very keen on visiting plantations in the vicinity of the port capitol of Paramaribo as this would be a likely place that Merian would have visited to study her insects and other fauna.
All photos in this blog group copyright © 2012 Michael Jacobi, Guy Tansley, Paul Carpenter & Andrew Smith.
Plantage Frederiksdorp is a restored coffee and cocoa plantation that now has hotel-style accommodations for visitors.
Upon arrival we found some Dutch bird-watchers and the plantation manager. It is always a surprise for the people we meet to learn that we are there to look for spiders. The manager assured us that there weren't tarantulas on the grounds and within five or ten minutes Guy had proven him wrong. We found the place absolutely teeming with Avicularia! We walked the grounds searching the trunks of the palms and other trees that lined irrigation channels and found silk tubes holding Avics everywhere. We were kiddies in the playground that day! I'll let some photos tell the story ...
|Me on the bow of our wooden vessel that took us across the Commewijne River to Plantage Frederiksdorp.|
|Andrew enjoying the riverine sights.|
|Andrew and I before disembarking at the plantation.|
|Andrew chats with the plantation manager.|
They had a museum of sorts that greatly appealed to our intrepid arachnohistorian.
|I photograph the retreat of the first Avicularia.|
Guy found it less than ten minutes after our arrival.
|Guy's first Avic - our first of the trip and of many that day and throughout the trip - in her retreat.|
|Guy poses with his prize.|
|We share a few celebratory beers with our first Avicularia.|
|Retreats like this were everywhere and mostly occupied!|
|Avicularia. Based on Merian and Linnaeus, I call this "the true" Avicularia avicularia.|
|The paths about the plantation.|
|So many trees to search!|
|Always a beautiful sight!|
|And they said there were no "bird spiders" here ...|
|There were diplurids too!|
|Just one of many silk tube retreats!|
|Guy points to another silken tube on a palm trunk. Avic heaven.|
As you can see our journey to Plantage Frederiksdorp was a worthwhile one. We had a wonderful lunch and a few Parbo biers and found dozens upon dozens of Avics. We had hit the ground running early in our trip. We would find many more Avics and many more tarantulas in the weeks to come, but this first day of tarantula hunting will always be memorable.
Until next time ... MJ