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.
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.