Confessions of a camera-trapper

Pollinators are strong drivers of plant evolution. If two plant species do not share pollinators then they can become ‘reproductively isolated’ since pollen (and hence genetic information) cannot pass between them; reproductive isolation is an essential part of the evolution of new species.

In a complex environment, such as the Amazon, it’s really quite difficult to figure out which plant species is pollinated by whom. Because of this, one of the main parts of the work we’re doing in Yasuni involves determining which species pollinate Brownea grandiceps and Brownea jaramilloi. In order to do this, we have been using camera traps to attempt to capture the act of pollination (and hence what animal is responsible for it) on film.

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This method is really interesting and great fun, and it’s a wonderful surprise to find out what you’ve caught on film over the past few days. However, camera trapping is not without its’ difficulties. Some of the ever-present problems of camera-trappers include:

  • The animals in question are too fast or too tiny to trigger the camera trap’s infrared beam (think bees, tiny bats, hummingbirds)
  • The flower being so high up in the tree that you have to tie the ladder onto the tree and, while perched precariously 12m above the ground, you realise that the ladder is about 8m too short
  • The flower you’re trying to film being just a few centimetres out of frame, which you only find out after you’ve got the trap down from the forest canopy
  • Forgetting to switch on the camera before you place it way up in the forest canpoy
  • Lacking a sufficient Spanish swear-word vocabulary to communicate your displeasure to your coworkers

However, despite these problems, we have had some success! Even though it’s well known that Brownea grandiceps is pollinated by hummingbirds, so this one was just a practice-run, but I feel like it’s a success nonetheless! See the footage below:

But, that’s the easy part! What we really want to know is which animal species visit Brownea jaramilloi. So far, a combination of trees lacking flowers, and the flowers that are present being far too high up in the canopy to film, has stymied out efforts. However, with the onset of the wet season we hope to find more B. jaramilloi in flower when we return to Yasuni in December. Wish us luck!

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Yasuni- a naturalist’s paradise

Listlessly, the exhausted caiman cast his vertical pupil in a shallow arc, surveying me while I removed the tape from his jaws, more than likely thinking that these were the last moments of life before being consumed by the lanky, long-haired ape that was manhandling him: so began my first day in the Amazon.

The caiman, as well as 3 more caiman and a green anaconda, were due for release after being trapped by local people, and along with some other interested biologists from the Estacion Cientifica Yasuni I went along to help! However, the majority of my time in the Amazon has been working on my PhD project, for which I have been collecting samples from two closely related species of Brownea (in the pea and bean family, Leguminosae) in order to  find out what drives the evolution of new species at the local scale. The kind of evolutionary mechanisms I am investigating have largely facilitated the fine-scale diversification of many thousands of species, meaning that Yasuni national park is arguably the most biodiverse place on Earth.

Yasuni is truly amazing- with around 660 species of tree per hectare (more than the entire United States!) the diversity is truly mind boggling, and as such it is an amazing place to work. We are lucky enough to be able to work in a 50 hectare forest plot established by Pontificia Universidad Catolica del Ecuador in Quito, for which every tree over 1cm diameter has been labelled and identified (and trust me, that is no mean feat). I am lucky enough to work with a PUCE undergrad student named Andres Melo, whose knowledge of the plot and enthusiasm for the work has really made the first few weeks of collecting excellent. As well as collecting, we have gotten out the camera traps (again!) in order to try to discover the what pollinates Brownea jaramilloi, one of the two species I am focusing on.B. jaramilloi is unique in its genus due to its yellow flowers (all other Brownea species have bright red flowers), with a hope to determine whether a change in pollinators has caused the shift in flower colour. Again, it is these small scale, microevolutionary changes that allow such a variety of species to evolve and coexist, and these processes are really at the core of my academic interests. As such, it is fantastic being able to work at Yasuni. The colourful profusion of flora and fauna (and tame tapirs!) render Yasuni a naturalist’s paradise.

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However, Yasuni is under threat. It sits over one of the richest oil fields in Ecuador, a country which relies on its oil exports for a major part of its income, and the forest is being successively sold off to oil companies. Indeed, the main way into the Yasuni Research Station is along a well-maintained oil road carved through the forest. Hopefully some vestige of this, the world’s most biodiverse area and a jewel in the crown of our natural wonders, will hold out against the draw of a few extra million dollars.

Un poco de Jocotoco

While descending from the Andes into the warm, moist Pacific air that forms a near-constant blanket of mist over Western Ecuador, our view of the surrounding country was completely nonexistent. It probably comes as no surprise that the North-Western coast of Ecuador (commonly known as the Chocó region, which stretches north, far into Colombia) is one of the wettest regions on Earth.

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Up in the clouds: The high, steamy Chocò forest on one of the trails in Canandé

In order to reach our eventual destination (the Jocotoco Conservation Foundation’s reserve at Canandé) required an 8-hour 4×4 journey along winding, bumpy dirt roads and across several rivers. During this drive the level of human destruction is obvious on Ecuador’s Chocó; the flat, fertile land is incredibly tempting to anyone wanting to farm cash crops such as Oil Palm, for those who wish to mine it, and especially for those who want to extract timber from the ancient forests. Well under 10% of this forest remains, which is tragic given the fact that it is a Biodiversity Hotspot, with many species from all groups found absolutely nowhere else (and many only being found within a single valley). This is exactly why reserves which contain pristine areas such as Canandé are critical for the conservation of the Chocó.

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Much of our work was focused around collecting as many plants from the Canandé reserve as possible, in order to create a checklist and a guide to the local flora. In addition, I was collecting data on one of my study species- Ecuadendron acosta-solisianum (pictured below), an endangered tree which is only found in four small populations, solely on the West coast of Ecuador (until those in Canandé were discovered, Ecuadendron was only known from three populations). We were collecting demographic and locality data in order to furnish future work I hope to undertake in my PhD. In addition to this, we tried to use camera traps to determine the potential pollinators of Ecuadendron; their long, white, hanging flowers (see below) strongly suggest that they are bat-pollinated (unfortunately, this ambitious venture was unsuccessful- those pesky bats are just too quick!) Eventually, I hope to study the conservation biology of this species and inform on conservation actions, given its limited range, Endangered status and the fact that it is favoured by loggers.

A bit o’ Quito

Following a sleepless 22 hours of transatlantic and trans-Caribbean flying, I have arrived safely in Quito, Ecuador! As the world’s second highest capital city (at a dizzying 3000m) my initial steps were understandably slow and deliberate in order to not pass out while climbing the stairs! Quito is arguably the most lively and hectic place I’ve ever been, and with a fantastic situation, being nestled between multiple volcanoes.

After organising necessities for my approaching fieldwork (more of that later!), and after many meetings where my comprehension of Spanish was put to the test (and admittedly the old ‘smile and nod’ technique was of great use) my supervisor Bente Klitgaard and I visited the Quito Botanical Garden. This place is truly a bijou little oasis in the smoggy, noisy and manic milieu of Quito. Top of the list of sightings for today include beautiful plants from the high-Andean Paramo, many tropical trees, countless orchids and my first ever view of a hummingbird; the black-tailed trainbearer (Lesbia victoriae), pictured below. This beauty was feeding on one of the many Fuchsia bushes planted around the gardens, and my overreaction to seeing this beautiful creature was thankfully not seen by too many people.

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