First week in the field

I have now been at my project site for a little over a week and every day presents more opportunities and experiences than I would have thought possible. As a quick recap of the research portion of my project, I am testing amphibians in the area for the presence of chytrid fungus, a disease that has been one of the leading factors in worldwide amphibian declines and extinctions. We are intensively looking for frogs right now in order to get 200 samples by June 26th so we can send them in to get the first batch of results. These results will tell us if the disease is present in the area, which it has been in the past, and what species seem to be carrying it the most. We have already noticed a reduction in the presence of one species of toad, Rhinella margaritifera, compared to what had been reported in the past. We have sampled several specimens of this species and the first round of test results will hopefully give us some indication of whether the fungus is present in this species.

Rhinella margaritifera

Based on preliminary observations, there seems to be a decline in Rhinella margaritifera populations

Frogs in this region are most active right before sunrise and right after sunset. I have not yet worked up the motivation to lead a 5-7am search, though one will happen at some point this week. So far, all of our surveys have been at night. The standard night survey for frogs is from 6-10pm. This means walking to where you want to start the survey by 6 and then searching along a trail or road for four hours trying to find frogs, and then tuning around and walking all the way back to the station. This searching method definitely has its ups and downs. On one hand, we often come back with ten or more specimens of several different species and we have the rare opportunity to transverse the Amazon jungle at night, which is an awe inspiring experience in itself. On the other hand, there are times when you have little or no success in finding frogs, your feet get extremely tired and the batteries in your headlamp, back up headlamp and back up back up flashlight all start to die. Ironically all three of those things happened in the same night.

Our other option for finding frogs is conducting leaf litter plots. This essentially consists of measuring out a 10X10 meter plot in the middle of the forest and crawling around on hands and knees combing over every square inch for frogs. We have attempted three of these plots and have yet to find one frog with this method. During our last plot I managed to get attacked by a multitude of ants which was not a fun experience!

Having now lived at the Villa Carmen biological research station for some time I have gotten to learn about the work of many of the researchers and staff here. Villa Carmen is one of three stations managed by ACCA, or the Asociación para la Conservación de la Cuenca Amazónica. The other two are Wayqecha, where I stayed for the orientation portion of my project, in the cloud forest and Los Amigos in the Amazon lowlands.  ACCA chose to work in this area because it is the only place in the Andes where the cloud forest of 3200-4000 meters is so close to the lowland forests of 200 meters.  Villa Carmen is between the two at around 600 meters.  These three stations and the land managed by ACCA link several national parks to create biological corridors in the region to prevent deforestation and save species from extinction. However, there is more to achieving these goals than just preserving land. ACCA is also dedicated to education and research. They work with local communities to teach about the importance of conservation and provide grants to Peruvian students to conduct research at their stations. They also host scientists from all over the world to help create a greater pool of knowledge of this incredibly diverse area. According to a study published last year, the easternmost region of the Amazon, right where ACCA is working, has the highest levels of biodiversity in the world. This means more species of frogs, bats, birds, monkeys and plants than any other single area! At Villa Carmen alone there are 99 species of orchids that have recently been discovered but have yet to be given scientific names. Unfortunately deforestation is still occurring at an unbelievable rate and there are several examples of frog species that have gone extinct within a few years of being discovered.  This is just one of the many reasons why I feel so privileged to be working in this area at this point in time. In all likelihood, if I come back ten years from now I will encounter a drastically altered landscape and a huge reduction in species diversity.

We had to take a cable car across the river

Madre de Dios river

Advertisements

Arrival in paradise

As the van rolled through the gates and then down the long and narrow road to the station I tried to take in as much of the scenery as possible. On my right side was a roaring river boarded on each side by steep banks. On my left were horses in a field, then a thin patch of trees, then a flock of black birds with bright yellow tails flying along the road. As the van pulled up to the lodge I realized I would not be roughing it as much as I had expected. The recently renovated administrative building features an outdoor dining room and a roofed patio with rows of orchids, tree ferns and bromeliads hanging around the edges. Just as we stepped out of the van my group was greeted by a cacophonous cry followed with a flyover by three massive macaws, two red and one blue and yellow. The heat and humidity were the next to hit me. At nearly 90 degrees and close to 90% humidity by mid-day, this place will not let you forget that you are in the tropics! I am sure that everyone has their own ideas of what the Garden of Eden may look like, but my thoughts at this point were something along the lines of, “I have just landed in paradise.”

The dining hall/ administrative building with the dorms off to the right

The dining hall/ administrative building with the dorms off to the right

The froggers of 2013 split up at Wayqecha. Some stayed in the cloud forest, some headed down to San Pedro at mid elevation, and Indira and I went all the way down the mountain to Villa Carmen. Allesandro also joined us for one night and lead us on our first night transect in the rainforest. In four hours we caught 19 frogs! However; the most exciting finds of our night were two plethodontid salamanders. There are only three species of salamanders in all of Peru, just one lives in this area, and we found two in the same night! There are biologists who work in these forests for years without ever seeing one of these. Unfortunately, since this species is so rarely studied, Alessandro instructed me to kill, preserve and take a DNA sample of one of our specimens.

ALE_9731

For the next two weeks we will be sampling as many frogs as possible before Allesandro returns to bring all of our swabs back to Cusco to test for chytrid fungus. Once he runs the test we will have our first look at the distribution of the disease at Villa Carmen.

While I have many more stories to share from my first few days here, I will save those for later posts.

Be sure to check out the photo galleries for a view of the area!

Wayqecha

On Wednesday June 5 the froggers of 2013 left Cusco for the biological research station Wayqecha. It was a five hour van ride on some of the scariest roads I have ever seen. I was torn between looking up at the spectacular views and looking off the side of the cliff to certain death below. To make a long story short, we survived.

Upon first approach to the station it was quite obvious why this type of environment is called a cloud forest. We were literally driving in desert like conditions for 4.5 hours until we suddenly hit a cloud and the vegetation turned from sparse scrubs to a thick, wet forest filed with mosses and vines. The station is in Manu national park and was established seven years ago by the ACCA (the Peruvian counterpart to the ACA). While birding is probably the greatest tourist attraction at this station, the leader of the frogging expedition, Alessandro Catenazzi, has been studying frogs in this area since before the station even opened. Our entire team of 6 froggers and a few other students are at the station here to learn the techniques we will be using to study chytrid fungus this summer. After the first two days, I quickly realized that the condition of the South American frog populations is much more critical than I originally thought. To paraphrase Alessandro’s presentation on the research he has conducted in the past, “the reason we are studying frogs that are only somewhat susceptible to the fungus is because all of the frogs that are extremely susceptible are already extinct or missing from large parts of their historical habitats.” It is sobering looking through recent field guides and seeing the small red dates next to so many beautiful endemic species listing the last time they were observed in the wild.

With the research I will be doing this summer we are hoping to get a better understanding of the spread of the disease into lower elevations where it was thought that it would not occur due to the higher temperatures, but has recently been discovered. One of the other projects that members of the group will be conducting is investigating a species that may act as a reservoir for the fungus, spreading it to other frogs without actually getting sick from it, therefore causing the disappearance of several other species. The project that I find most interesting that will hopefully be completed this summer is inoculating frogs with a beneficial bacteria that protects from the chytrid fungus. This method has been used successfully in saving a species of frogs in the Sierra Nevada from extinction. Currently the bacteria cultures are stuck in customs so hopefully they will make it through with enough time to run the trials.

Tomorrow I leave for Villa Carmen to start on my project down there.

Como es, no?

Cusco

At 7:30AM yesterday morning (June 3) I landed in Cusco. I had tried to sleep on the plane after departing from Lima but gave up after a few minutes and quickly became fascinated by watching the Andes roll by on the ground below. Having lived in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains all my life I thought that I had fairly good understanding of what mountains are. The bare rock faces and snow-capped peaks of the Andes proved me wrong. The descent into Cusco was breathtaking. Literally. At 3,400 M the elevation is enough to make anyone struggle for breath. But in a figurative take on the word, the city is built into the sides of amazingly steep mountains and the copper roofs of buildings below glistened in the early morning sunlight. (I am now done trying to be poetic, don’t worry).

I spent most of yesterday and today collecting supplies for my time out in the Amazon and getting to know the team I will be working with. I quickly realized two things in my first few hours here. One, it is much colder than I expected, with nighttime temperatures in the low 30s I was woefully unprepared to be spending several nights in the cloud forest. Two, the drivers here are crazy. Just in the cab ride to the hotel I was convinced I was going to die at least three times. I have since purchased some warm alpaca clothing to deal with the first issue, and after walking through the city for two days and never seeing one accident, I assume that the completely disorganized style of driving here is much safer than it looks. In my quest for alpaca clothing, rubber wading boots and a few other supplies I could not help playing the tourist role a bit. I have had some incredible food (including alpaca) and visited El Covento De Santo Domingo Del Cusco, the first church built here by the Spanish, which incorporates part of the base of Qorikancha, the Incan Sun Temple that the Spanish demolished to do so. We are now re-packing all of our supplies and getting ready to head out to Wayqecha tomorrow morning.

DSCF0516The view of Cusco and the courtyard of Qorikancha from the back of El Covento De Santo Domingo

I will try to upload a photo gallery form Cusco when I have a better internet connection.

Wheels Up!

Six hours from now I will be jetting my way off to Peru for nearly ten weeks. I have never read or much less kept blogs before and sort of thought that recording one’s life and putting it on the internet thinking that people would take time out of their lives to read it seemed sort of pretentious. None the less, that is exactly what I plan on doing for this summer in Peru and my semester abroad in Costa Rica this fall. So, with this inaugural blog post I am going to attempt to explain why I will be spending my summer in the Amazon.
I am going to be working with the Amazon Conservation Association (ACA) at their research station Villa Carmen. The ACA is dedicated to the preservation of one of the world’s most biodiverse forests by conducting research to understand the forces destroying that biodiversity and working with non-scientists to implement conservation strategies. My work this summer is with a project researching chytrid fungus, a disease that is lethal to amphibians and has been spread worldwide by human activities, causing numerous species extinctions. My work at Villa Carmen will be to assess the spread of the disease from the higher elevation cloud forest towards lower level rainforest. I will also be working on a few outreach programs to educate local children about conservation. Ideally the work done by my group this summer will provide enough information to halt the spread of this disease, save innumerable frogs from extinction and inspire a new generation of Peruvian conservationists… Well realistically that might not all happen…
I would be remiss not to mention DukeEngage, the program funding my trip. DukeEngage sends a small group of independent program Duke students around the world every summer to do volunteer community oriented projects. I have known some amazing DukeEngagers from previous summers and I hope that I will be able to live up to the reputation they have established for the program.
So anyways, now my gear is packed, I am clean shaven (for the first time in several years) and I am counting down the minutes until take off.

IMG_9081

I know that was a pretty dry first blog post, but stay tuned for some stunning photographs and vivid accounts of the Peruvian Amazon!