McMichael, C.N.H., Vink, V., Heijink, B.M., Witteveen, N.H., Piperno, D.R., Gosling, W.D. & Bush, M.B. (2023) Ecological legacies of past fire and human activity in a Panamanian forest. Plants, People, Planet5, 281-291. DOI: 10.1002/ppp3.10344
Nascimento, M.N., Heijink, B.M., Bush, M.B., Gosling, W.D. & McMichael, C.N.H. (2022) Early to mid-Holocene human activity exerted gradual influences on Amazonian forest vegetation. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 377, 20200498. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2020.0498
Bush, M.B., Rozas-Davila, A., Raczka, M., Nascimento, M., Valencia, B., Sales, R.K., McMichael, C.N.H. & Gosling, W.D. (2022) A palaeoecological perspective on the transformation of the tropical Andes by early human activity. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 377, 20200497. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2020.0497
McMichael, C.N., Heijink, B.M., Bush, M.B. & Gosling, W.D. (2020) On the scaling and standardization of charcoal data in paleofire reconstructions. Frontiers of Biogeography. https://doi.org/10.21425/F5FBG49431
Bush MB. 2020. New and repeating tipping points: The interplay of fire, climate change, and deforestation in Neotropical ecosystems. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 105:393-404. DOI: 10.3417/2020565
van der Sande, M.T., Bush, M.B., Urrego, D.H., Silman, M., Farfan-Rios, W., García Cabrera, K., Shenkin, A., Malhi, Y., McMichael, C.H. & Gosling, W.D. (2020) Modern pollen rain predicts shifts in plant trait composition but not plant diversity along the Andes-Amazon elevational gradient. Journal of Vegetation Science DOI: 10.1111/jvs.12925.
Fast forward to 2019, the Aguarico is now lined by small homesteads interspersed with larger settlements, some laid out by the oil companies, and a couple of oil ports. I asked our guide how far the park was ahead of us, and he looked surprised and said “We are in it”. When we arrived at the Zancudo River there was a cell tower and a village of probably 30-50 houses on the junction with the Aguarico. Ten minutes downstream was a tourist lodge. What a difference! The frontier had expanded ~140 km down the Aguarico. One family with a shotgun eliminates all game larger than a marmoset within 5 km, and these homesteads were packed so tight it was unsurprising that we saw almost no wildlife.
The cell tower at the village of Zancudococha. Photo: M. Bush.
The next day we ventured onto Zancudococha. The Zancudo stream was still pretty, overhung by trees, and had no barriers to navigation. Three boats full of tourists passed us coming out of the lake, clearly having spent the night there. There were no logs to clear, and the path through the Montricardia marsh was two boats wide. There are only two patches of high, dry land on the edge of the lake. One was regularly used as a campsite and the other had a lodge built on it that was operated intermittently by the Zancudo community.
We saw no monkeys, let alone tapirs, this was an empty forest. But we weren’t there to be ecotourists, we were there to raise a sediment core. This time our questions were about the Pre-Columbian use of the lake. Was the lake occupied prior to European arrival? How much did people alter the forest? Was there a surge of forest regrowth following Conquest? Given these questions, the 1 m of sediment that we recovered with a Universal piston corer was all that we needed. One meter of mud from this system spans about 1500 years and that would provide us with the trajectory of use (or non-use) into the colonial period and its aftermath. Our mood in camp was happy, we had been successful in our intent. So, my message is you can’t go back to find what was there before, but that doesn’t mean that it will be a bad experience. Shifting baselines apply to nature in every setting, but they also apply to science as our questions and interests undergo inter-generational changes.
A broad path through the marsh at Zancudococha. Photo M. Bush
The lodge at Zancudococha. Photo: M. Bush.
Mark Bush is a Professor of Biological Science at the Florida Institute of Technology, Melbourne, FL, USA.
The next two days were spent in motorized dugouts sitting on our gear bags, with tarps pulled over us. Every now and then the driving rain would relent and we would see macaws and toucans flying across the Aguarico River. We stayed one night in a village that had been abandoned due to recent floods, another with Siona hunters who were preparing their blow darts (for monkeys). There were very few houses along the river and we hardly saw another boat in three days. Then we arrived, well almost. We had turned off the main channel onto the tiny Zancudo river. Little used, this stream was a jumble of fallen trees that the Siona chopped their way through. A large tree just beneath the surface posed a problem that was solved by stripping the bark from Cecropiatrees and laying it inside surface facing up, backing up, revving the engine, and aiming straight for the bark. The slick insides of the Cecropiaallowed the canoes to shoot the trunk and on we went. Then we reached the marsh. When I say ‘marsh’ it was a forest of Montricardia arborescens. This is an aquatic Aroid that grows about 3 m high. The trunks are about 3-5 cm in diameter and is THE favored hangout for caiman and anaconda (I have since learned). No Siona in their right mind gets out of a boat in such a marsh and so we were stuck……so close but yet so far. Our only chance of getting through the marsh was to hop out of the boats and pull them through.
The author pulling a canoe through the marsh at Zancudococha in 1988. Photo: Miriam Steinitz-Kannan.
We had two boats and so the most dispensable members of the team, Paulo de Oliveira and I, were given the job of hauling the boats. A couple of happy hours later we were through the marsh and onto the lake.
Our first jobs were to find somewhere dry enough to camp, unload, set up camp, and survey the lake. Paul Colinvaux the team leader always launched an inflatable and surveyed the lake on first arrival. Meanwhile the rest of us set up camp. About 20 minutes into all this activity there was the unmistakable crack of a shotgun. In a few more minutes the Chief’s sons emerged from the forest with the news that they had shot a large tapir. The tapir fed the group for the next few days, but I ate tuna and a sausage that had turned blue and slimy, unable to reconcile my role in, what to me, was an unfortunate outcome of our petitioning the Siona to bring us to their sacred lake. The coring was more successful than at Cuyabeno in that we recovered 5m of sediment, but it was clearly a young system and wouldn’t answer our research question. This expedition was a disappointment scientifically, but an incredible snapshot along the gradient of Amazonian development.
View from our campsite of an island in Lake Zancudococha (1988). Photo: M. Bush.
The 1988 camp at Zanucudococha was a place of field biology. Chemist Mike Miller worked late into the night on limnology, while field microscopes were used to get an early glimpse of plankton and diatoms. From left to right: Melanie Riedinger-Whitmore, Eduardo Asanza, Haki, Paulo de Oliveira and Paul Colinvaux. Photo: M. Bush.