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.
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.