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The expedition began in earnest at Rockstone, a tiny outpost hacked out of the rain forest on the Essequibo River. As we approached the landing on a jungle-lined dirt road, scattering clouds of yellow and chartreuse butterflies, we saw a group of more than a dozen women and children, dressed in long skirts and colorful blouses. They piled into an old wooden boat and, eight dugout canoes in tow, headed upstream, where they would spend two days catching piranha, catfish, arawana, and angelfish for the international aquarium trade.
The next morning our team of eight (six Americans, an Englishman, and a Guyanese) got into a small motorboat and explored a canal off the Essequibo. Thick white clouds drifted across the sky, occasionally blocking a sun so hot that the mere act of sitting induced a shirt-soaking sweat. Red and green kingfishers shot in front of our wooden boat. Iridescent hummingbirds hovered over the cove. As we drifted into a fetid lagoon clogged with dead trees, a snake skittered across the water. Armbruster pronounced conditions perfect. He was the first over the side.
The biologists engaged in a hogging frenzy, probing half-submerged logs. Michael Hardman, a 24-year-old British Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois, was the first casualty. Ohhhhh, @#@#! he screamed. Wading through the hot, chest-deep water, he had placed his hand on a submerged spiny palm, and a half dozen of its black needles had broken off in his hand. But his suffering was not in vain: A few minutes later the team hoisted a ten-foot (3 meter) hollow log containing so many fish it rattled like a maraca.
Armbruster was into the log up to his shoulder when he grabbed a fish that took a liking to his hand. What is that? he hollered. My fingers are meat.
In rapid succession the scientists extracted a tetra, a rare nine-inch (23 centimeter) catfish, and a spiny catfish oozing a milky poison from its skin. The U.S. and Canada contain approximately 40 species of catfish. South America has about 1,200 different catfish species, roughly half the worlds total. In Guyana alone there may be as many as 300.
It was late October, ostensibly the dry season. That afternoon it poured, flooding our tents. Dry season, we were discovering, was a cruel misnomer. As Jason Knouft, also a Ph.D. candidate at Illinois, put it, There is no dry here, just different degrees of damp.
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