For Three Students, Research Trip in the Amazon Takes Unexpected Twists and Turns

Bass Connections team's collection site in Peruvian Amazon

By Melissa Marchese ’21, Kelsey Lansdale ’19, and Jacqueline Gerson (Ph.D. Program in Ecology)

“Uh oh” is not what you want to hear, ever, but this phrase is especially nerve-wracking when you’re conducting fieldwork on the impacts of gold mining in the Amazon using expensive equipment and sensitive mercury collectors amongst a crowd (miners) that does not want the authorities in their business.

This particular “uh oh” came from the least likely person – our boat guide Ramiro, who is incredibly nonchalant, always telling us not to worry and that bullet ants only hurt un poco. So, as we sat in the boat and saw Ramiro’s reaction as he walked up the riverbank and into one of our sites, we knew something crazy must have occurred, but we couldn’t even begin to imagine what we saw next.

An area once so dense it required a machete to enter, now was flattened; there were no trees, bushes, or even small plants – just heaping piles of branches that had been stacked while the surrounding forest was burned.

As we entered one of our sites – which was once a pristine, seemingly untouched area of the rainforest near the Chilive River – we were shocked to find that about a hectare of land around our collection site had been completely cleared and burned. An area once so dense it required a machete to enter, now was flattened; there were no trees, bushes, or even small plants – just heaping piles of branches that had been stacked while the surrounding forest was burned.

On top of the lack of forest, there was now a house being built about twenty feet from our collection site, complete with a firepit and clothes drying on a line – likely the new home of a logger wanting to live closer to the forest he cuts down.

Upon seeing the destruction, we ran to our open precipitation collection site (a group of five, meter-tall PVC tubes containing funnels and bottles to collect rainwater). We wanted to see if anything had been tampered with and expected our collection setups to be damaged, along with the rest of the forest. Amazingly, it seemed our “DO NOT TOUCH/ NO TOCAR” sign had deterred the people from touching our sensitive tubes or burning within a small radius around them. They had also left untouched our active air sampler, which has a valuable battery and solar panel attached. This further proves our belief that the people here are some of the most polite in the world.

The objective of our deposition, air, and soil collection – placed at five locations along the Madre de Dios River – is to track the movement of mercury from gold mining through the ecosystem and to distinguish between mercury sourced in the soil versus the atmosphere.

Although there is obviously an issue with the random decimation of fully forested areas in an extremely biodiverse and delicate ecosystem, our minds also went quickly to how it would affect our data. Burning organic material, like the soil, leaves, and wood, releases mercury. The objective of our deposition, air, and soil collection – placed at five locations along the Madre de Dios River – is to track the movement of mercury from gold mining through the ecosystem and to distinguish between mercury sourced in the soil versus the atmosphere.

Some have speculated that the soil in this region of the world has a naturally high mercury content but, as with many aspects of this complicated ecosystem, it has not been thoroughly studied. We seek to shed light on that in our research, but because of the burning, our results will be used differently than how we had originally planned.

This unexpected burning at our site will most likely change the amount of mercury measured in the air, precipitation, and soil; our results will thus show mercury released not just from the gold mining downstream, but also from the deforestation occurring at the site.

One of the main things that we have learned from conducting fieldwork abroad is that you have to go with the flow and improvise when things do not go according to plan, which they often don’t. This unexpected burning at our site will most likely change the amount of mercury measured in the air, precipitation, and soil; our results will thus show mercury released not just from the gold mining downstream, but also from the deforestation occurring at the site.

Now, we can analyze the air and precipitation samples from the Chilive site during and after the fires to understand how much mercury is released in burning and how it affects an ecosystem since, sadly, the practice of deforestation and setting fires is an everyday occurrence here. Whether it is by clearing areas to make a campsite, logging, burning fields to “cleanse” them before the next crop, or incinerating garbage, seeing smoke billowing from the towns and stumbling upon fully deforested areas is common.

The practice of deforestation and setting fires is an everyday occurrence here.

This experience at our Chilive River site of peeking behind the riparian zone – the area containing the trees lining the river – was eye-opening. We were shocked to find our previously forested collection site devoid of plants, littered with plastic, and under construction. Sadly, this experience was not unique.

Boating down the river, all we see for hours on end are trees, with the exception of mining in the river and a few villages dotting the shore. Yet, despite so much dense forest alongside the river, we often found ourselves wondering why we did not see canopy trees extending into the distance beyond the riparian zone. Our previously forested collection site (as well as several afternoon hikes in which we have suddenly found ourselves in fields of massive deforestation) sheds light on why this might be – massive deforestation occurring along the river, which is seemingly invisible to those who do not venture past the shore.

When we ran into a group of high school students passing through this area of the Peruvian Amazon, we asked one of the leaders his favorite part about traveling through the region. He described his awe of the “untouched natural beauty.” Admittedly slightly jaded at this point, we nodded politely and thought to ourselves how much remains unseen here, even to those who come to experience the Amazon. Keeping illegal activity hidden from the eyes of tourists and the National Guard is common practice for loggers, miners, farmers, and anyone else whose land use involves cutting down forest. What would a boatful of visitors think as they drove by endless piles of wood where there should be soaring trees? Peru would quickly lose a driver of its economy – ecotourism.

Keeping illegal activity hidden from the eyes of tourists and the National Guard is common practice for loggers, miners, farmers, and anyone else whose land use involves cutting down forest.

The riparian zone is like a curtain drawn along the river, hiding the massive amounts of deforestation stored just behind it. When you think of the Amazon rainforest, hear about it in biology class, or see it in nature documentaries, it brings about expectations that are almost otherworldly compared to our usual surroundings. It’s easy to imagine a forest with trees the size of buildings, plant and fungal growth on every surface, and animals everywhere. However, the reality, while often strikingly beautiful, has evoked unexpected feelings. We still have a lot to learn about the pristine natural world here, and who better to teach us than its people?

Melissa Marchese with a child in PeruDuring our time in Madre de Dios, we wanted to give back to the communities that have warmly welcomed us into their homes and towns, so we brought art supplies to be shared at the local schools. When we arrived in Boca Manu, we learned that schools had been let out on winter break for a few weeks and the teachers and students had returned to their hometowns. So, as usual, we improvised, quickly set up a meeting with the mayor, and created a plan to gather all the children living in the small town of Boca Manu.

Our plan was to do a quick and fun activity teaching them about conservation and the importance of the river while providing a creative visual art outlet using supplies that are not readily available to them. We brought markers, crayons, colored pencils, and paper and led a discussion with the kids about the role the river plays in their lives and then asked them to focus their art on the river. Since school was out, the age range we were working with was from one to fifteen years old, and everyone present seemed to enjoy the activity and ability to draw freely with their new materials. Even in a group of ten-year-old boys, we could see intense concentration. The effort that they put into the activity and the effect it seemed to have on them was awesome…until they snapped out of it, realized drawing was probably uncool, and proceeded to rip up their delicately sketched work to compensate.

Kelsey Lansdale with a child in PeruWe were very impressed with the projects we saw. Some pictures included indistinguishable squiggles, tigers, ambulances, and Legos on the river; however, most of the pictures show a beautiful river with large trees floating down it, boats moving through it, and animals gathering nearby.

We were shocked by how realistic the pictures were and how perceptive the children are. While we planned originally only to work in Boca Manu, which is upstream of mining and in a protected area (so no mining occurs around it), we started to wonder how the pictures might change as we moved downstream toward mining. As these kids drew pictures of the river they saw, would the children in Boca Colorado, a large mining town, draw a river strewn with sediment piles and mining contraptions? Would their view of the river be as ours was before coming, or show the drastic manmade developments (mining and deforestation) that have since shaped our view?

We’re still upstream, waiting for our collectors to fill with rainwater, so we don’t yet know the answer to how kids in mining communities will interpret their river systems. What we do know is that the river plays an important role in the lives of these upstream communities – providing them with transportation, food, and a means of income. If deforestation and mining continue to spread, moving closer and closer to these towns, the culture and values of these communities will change. It might remain largely unseen to travelers – residing just out of view to those remaining in a boat on the river – but the effects will be felt by all within the vicinity.

Learn More

  • Review the team’s first and second posts about this fieldwork.

 

Photos courtesy of Jackie Gerson

Ecology Doctoral Student Analyzes Whales’ Baleen to Reconstruct the Story of a Species

William Cioffi GSTEG

What can a fin whale’s feeding apparatus tell us about that animal? William Cioffi, a Ph.D. student in Ecology, took a summer course at the University of Utah on stable isotope ecology to support his dissertation on using baleen from fin whales to reconstruct individual life histories and assess changes in foraging ecology, reproduction, and stress.

He was among 18 Duke University students who received Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grants (GSTEG) in 2017-18 from the Office of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies for training beyond their core disciplines. His faculty mentor is Andrew Read. He shared an update:

William CioffiThe GSTEG award provided me with support to attend a 10-day workshop on stable isotope ecology at the University of Utah this past summer. In addition to morning and evening lectures by top experts in the field, we spent afternoons collecting samples from around Salt Lake City and then processing and analyzing them in the laboratory.

We learned a great deal about the history and theory behind stable isotope ecology as well as many laboratory and analysis techniques that have already been useful to me in my work. Most exciting about this course was the opportunity to discuss ideas and challenges with other students and instructors who had all spent a great deal of time thinking about these issues. The participants included those studying vertebrates, geology, botany, and even forensic science. This course has been running for over 20 years and everyone benefited from the great experience of the instructors and former students, some of whom have even returned as instructors themselves.

In my own work, I use stable isotopes to investigate the historical ecology of baleen whales. Baleen whales are named for the keratin plates that comprise their feeding apparatus. These plates grow continuously throughout an animal’s life, slowly wearing away at the distal end. By repeatedly sampling for stable isotope analysis along the growth axis of an individual plate, a time series can be generated that provides information about foraging and migratory behavior that might have been occurring when that part of the plate was growing. These data provide a window into the past for populations that may no longer exist, but for which baleen plates have been archived in museums or other collections.

About GSTEG

This internal funding mechanism from the Office of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies encourages doctoral and master’s students to step away from their core research and training to acquire skills, knowledge, or co-curricular experiences that will give them new perspectives on their research agendas. Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grants are intended to deepen preparation for academic positions and other career trajectories.

Images: 2017 IsoCamp class; William Cioffi photographing baleen in preparation for sampling at the New York State Museum

A Tale of Two Feces: Looking into What Comes Out of Lemurs in Madagascar

Lydia Greene

Lydia Greene is a student in the Ph.D. Program in Ecology. She took part in the Bass Connections project team Cookstoves and Air Pollution in Madagascar and received an International Dissertation Research Travel Award from the Graduate School. In the latest Duke Lemur Center-SAVA Conversation newsletter, she reflects on her unusual subject matter and describes her research in the SAVA region of northeast Madagascar.

Feces is not always the most palatable topic to discuss around the dinner table, but for lemur researchers, it’s often unavoidable. Take, for example, a recent mission to Marojejy National Park conducted by myself and DLC-SAVA project coordinator, Marina Blanco. We went to Marojejy together to collect feces for two different projects, and often found ourselves at the end of a long day, consuming vast quantities of rice and beans, discussing the various lemurs we had seen defecate that day. Ah, field work.

As a PhD student in Duke’s Ecology Program, I was on the hunt for fecal samples for my dissertation research on the gut microbiomes of various leaf and fruit-eating lemurs. My research centers around trying to understand the relationship between the multitude of bacteria that inhabit lemur guts and the feeding strategy, geographic location, and evolutionary history of the lemur—that is, are the bacteria in a lemur’s gut more reflective of what they eat, where they live, or who they are. It’s been a longtime goal of mine to sample the silky sifakas, white-fronted brown and red-bellied lemurs of Marojejy.

Marina’s project also centered around the poop of white-fronted brown and red-bellied lemurs, more easily referred to as the Eulemur. Eulemur are fruit eaters and play a major role in seed dispersal in Marojejy. The idea is that these lemurs swallow whole seeds, soften the seeds’ outer layer with intestinal juices, and pass them intact in their feces, where equipped with their own fertilizer, they germinate well. We often think of the ruffed lemurs as being the biggest seed dispersers in Madagascar: Their body size being bigger, they can theoretically poop out bigger seeds. But, there aren’t any ruffed lemurs in Marojejy, and so the task falls on the Eulemur. Marina’s objective was therefore to find Eulemur groups, wait for them to poop, identify the seeds in the poop, collect fruit from corresponding trees, and germinate the seeds.

We based our team at Camp 2, and our first day was spent getting ourselves there. Camp 2 is a good 6.1km from the park entrance and another 2.7km from where cars can drop you off. You also hike upwards about 800m. Fresh air, clean water, and the sounds of the forest surrounded us as Marina and I pitched our tent. Soon, stars emerged and mouse lemurs bounced around the trees behind us.

To help us both, we hired a crackerjack team of guides. First there is Dezykely, an experienced Marojejy guide who knows the lemurs, but also how to keep me from falling down (don’t worry mom, I’m fine). Then there is January, named for his birth month, who is an expert silky tracker. He once spent a year and a half in Marojejy and knows every inch of the park. And lastly we had Yokono, a fresher guide whose enthusiasm and excellent English made up for his youth. These guys seem to swim through the forest with ease on really difficult ‘trails’. I would generously describe my hiking style as somewhat less graceful.

Take for example, the day I went with Dezy and January to find some silky sifakas. We were off the tourist trail, travelling along the guide trails. I think trail is a strong word here, as mostly what I saw were opportunistic roots to grab onto, a few slippery rocks to shuffle along, several trees that looked good on paper, but were really hosts for leech infestations, and several holes masquerading as solid ground. I quickly learned the Malagasy word for ‘fall’ (lavo) and also the term for sliding on your butt to avoid falling (techniqué vody). This particular mission was successful and I scored samples from 3 adult silky sifakas living together, 2 females carrying infants and the group’s dominant male.

Over 10 days of alternate sunshine and monsoon, our team hiked up and down, front to back, and side to side looking for our lemurs and their poop. The lemurs of Marojejy are habituated to people, but carry no tracking devices. We rely completely on our guides to find them based on their instinct and experience. I ultimately collected samples from 9 silky sifakas, 9 red-bellied lemurs, and 14 white-fronted brown lemurs, and Marina identified 9 different types of intact seeds pooped out by her lemurs.

The most impressive part? The sheer size of some of the seeds. One seed, whose mother tree is known as fagnonahona, is literally the size of a quail’s egg, but more oblong. Marina saw a red-bellied lemur poop out three of them in a row. Giant yellow bullets raining down from the canopy. If she hadn’t seen it, I never would have believed it. Currently, some of these lemur “fe-seeds” are germinating in a small tree nursery at the DLC-SAVA office: We now have proof that red-bellied lemurs act as seed dispersers of this giant seed.

Overall, we had a fantastic time in Marojejy. I love the thrill of hiking for hours to finally find the animals and of waiting for hours to finally get samples. And then I love the calm of ending each exhausting day wrapped in a warm fleece, drinking tea with the team, and discussing lemur poop.

By Lydia Greene; originally published in the October 2017 newsletter from Duke Lemur Center-SAVA Conservation

Photos, clockwise from left: A happy lemur researcher (Lydia Greene) and her samples’ DLC-SAVA project coordinator Marina Blanco wondering how a lemur could have passed such a large seed intact!; A female white fronted brown lemur (Eulemur albifrons) about to make a fecal contribution; Seeds of various forest fruits eaten by Marojejy lemurs