© copyright 2003 Michael P. Hamilton, Ph.D.


So where are the dinosaurs?


July 30, 1987:

The pilot signaled us to come aboard, so we ducked our heads,

ran like heck over to the Hughes military helicopter, and

climbed inside. I had asked the commander in charge of this

flight if we could have the door removed to gain an unobstructed

view for shooting video and movie film. He agreed, so our flight

would be rather noisy and windy ... and very exciting.


book cover of Sir Conan Doyle's novel "The Lost World"


It was time to visit one of the most unusual ecological features

in all of Venezuela, the Tepui mesas of the Gran Sabana. When Sir

Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his famous novel 'The Lost World' he

based his adventure on the exploration of this little known region of

Venezuela. The Tepui are a series of ancient mountains formed by the

breakup of the continents of South America and Africa

millions of years ago. As massive geological forces gradually lifted

the land, erosion from ancient rivers, rainfall and wind weathered

away the more porous materials, exposing these flat-topped mesas.

Geology, topography and climate eventually isolated the tops of the

mesas from each other and the connecting landscape below. Arthur

Doyle speculated in his fictional story that relict dinosaurs still

existed on the tops of these prehistoric Tepui, unable to leave because of

the thousand foot cliffs. Today it was our turn to see if the dinosaurs

really existed!


Angel Falls, Venezuela


The Gran Sabana is an extraordinary place. The tallest waterfall in the

world, Angel Falls, plunges nearly 3,000 feet from the summit of

Ayuan Tepui. Looking through the viewfinder of my camera I filmed a

landscape of flat top mountains, deep green rainforests and large

expanses of grasslands and palm trees. There were no roads or

other evidence of human habitation in the direction we were travelling.

Our destination was to ecologically survey the top of Mount

Drivoa, and to collect a rare carnivorous pitcher plant called Heliamphora.

After two hours of travel the pilot informed us that we were

approaching the summit of the mountain, and to prepare to land. Much

of the lower elevations of the mountain was shrouded in a thin white mist,

but fortunately for us the upper reaches were in full sunlight. There is

nothing quite like a helicopter to get around in normally

inaccessible places. I've been spoiled over the years in having the use

of helicopters to study wildlife in Alaska, endangered plants in

Nevada and Utah, and bighorn sheep in our local

Santa Rosa Mountains.


Heliamphora, The Venezuela Sun Pitcher


It didn't take us long to unload the helicopter and watch it depart,

then set up camp and begin our botanical survey. A well-known

Venezuelan botanist, Dr. Otto Huber, was with us on this expedition,

and he being quite familiar with the location, we soon discovered

the first specimen of Heliamphora minor, the Venezuelan pitcher

plant. Pitcher plants are unusual members of a larger group of

carnivorous plants that derive their primary nutrition from animals.

Their leaves have evolved into ingenious watery traps that attract and

ensnare insects. Slippery wax and downward pointing hairs around

the rim of each pitcher-like leaf keeps unwitting insects from

climbing out until they drown. Specialized enzymes secreted

by the cell walls of the pitchers rapidly break down

the softer body parts, making food that sustains these plants

that ordinarily grow in nutrient-poor acid bogs. Pitcher plants exist

in Australia, southeastern and northwestern US, the jungles of southeast

Asia, and the rarest here in Venezuela.


These are heady times for young biologists, exploring tropical

mountains that fewer than 100 people have ever seen. Before our

helicopter returned to take us back to civilization we had collected

nearly a hundred specimens of rare and exotic plants, and captured

what we hoped to be at least a dozen new species of animals,

including bats, frogs and insects. Nowhere in our wanderings

did we come across the dinosaurs described in 'The Lost World' ...

but you should know we spared no small effort in trying!

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