I’m rattling down an unpaved road in the Ecuadorian Amazon. The brakes screech at every turn, and the chain is close to falling off. Unsurprisingly, the rain is pouring, turning the road into a maze of puddles and mud. The road follows the Anzu River, and I can hear its roar off to my right.
I’m forcing a perfectly innocent bike to brave the Amazon because this road leads to the Herbario Amazónico of the Universidad Estatal Amazónica (ECUAMZ). ECUAMZ (an acronym for “Ecuador Amazon”) is the only herbarium in the Amazon, and contains a repository of plant specimens for preservation and help with field identifications. It was established by Dr. David Neill, a specialist in the Fabaceae (legume) family and world-renowned expert in tropical botany, and Dr. Mercedes Asanza, the coordinator of the herbarium. They have agreed to mentor me over the summer and teach me about tropical plants. The Herbario Amazónico, which contains over 17,000 vascular plant species, is the perfect place to learn.
The view from the top of the tower at Jatun Sacha.
I am sitting on the shore of Lago Condorcillo in Southern Ecuador, after a long day of travel, trying to control my shivering. At roughly 10,500 ft. above sea level, the lake is very cold, with wind that howls over the barren hills dotted with giant boulders. The lake is also almost always blanketed by thick fog and pelted by driving rain. When you’re surrounded by the thick fog punctuated by lightning bolts, it’s easy to believe that some lost civilization lurks just out of sight. Tonight we are experiencing lightning storms, which is adding to the feeling that some angry, ancient life form must live at Lago Condorcillo.
Tomorrow, I will be out in the cold and rain, balancing on an inflatable boat and fighting frostbite. Mark Bush, who is my Ph.D. advisor, Courtney Shadik, who is my lab partner and tent buddy, and I will be collecting cores of mud from the bottom of Condorcillo. We will create our rig for coring by tying two inflatable boats together, and placing a wooden platform between them. Mark, Courtney, and I will then collect our mud cores from this platform.
As I’m contemplating the hazards of camping in a lightning storm, Mark says, “Tell me everything that went wrong today.” Courtney pulls a sleeping bag closer to her. I begin to describe how Google Maps can’t seem to understand distance in the Andes, and so traveling to Lago Condorcillo took much longer than we anticipated. Courtney laughs beside me and adds, “We don’t have any matches to start a fire.” Despite our troubles, I am grinning from ear to ear, no doubt spoiling the grim mood Mark is attempting to cultivate and Lago Condorcillo is doing its best to enforce.
The International Conference on Past Plant Diversity, Climate Change, and Mountain Conservation was aimed to address this question, with a focus on mountain (montane) species. As climate warms, there are several outcomes for montane species. They can migrate upslope, go extinct, or adapt to the warming conditions. Given these options, we got together to discuss our most recent datasets, and the best strategies for the conservation of montane species. Effective conservation strategies are crucial for the survival of many rare and endemic montane species, because climate is indeed warming, regardless of what Trump or Fox News tries to tell people.
15:00 Predator avoidance and prey tracking in a Neotropical forest (Constant Swinkels, Wageningen University & Research)
15:20 The role of fig volatiles in pollinator specificity and fig diversity (Aafke Oldenbeuving, Naturalis Biodiversity Center)
15:40 Mangrove Atlantis: Can mangroves keep up with extreme land-subsidence? (Celine van Bijsterveldt, Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research)
16:10 The fate of forests in agro-forest frontier landscapes, implications for conservation (Madelon Lohbeck, Wageningen University & Research)
16:30 Trends in the variability of Specific Leaf Area of paramo vegetation during succession (Marian Cabrera, University of Amsterdam)
16:50 Succession dynamics of tree and soil fungal communities in regenerating tropical rainforests are strongly influenced by regional species pool and abiotic factors (Irene Adamo, Naturalis Biodiversity Center)
Over the last two weeks I have been giving my lectures at the VU Amsterdam “Scientific Methods in Archaeology” bachelor program. In my lectures we think about how to detect past environmental change with particular reference to tracking past human activities. As part of our exploration of past human-environment-climate interactions each student is asked to choose a scientific article, summerise it, and we then discuss it in class. The three papers sected this year covered the Neolithic of the Netherlands (Weijdema et al., 2011), a overview of Mediterranean and north African cultural adaptations to drough events during the Holocene (Mercuri et al., 2011), and an exploration of the role of humans in mega-faunal extinctions in South America (Villavicencio et al., 2015). All papers provided interesting points of discussion and an opportunity to think about different aspects of how we investigate past environmental and societal change.
The 2018 edition of the University of Amsterdam masters course “Environments Through Time” is now up and running. The course sits at the interface between ecology, physical geography and archaeology and seeks to provide students with a better understanding of how long-term (>100’s years) datasets can provide insights in to past environmental change.
In the first week of the course the students had to present their ‘favourite’ paper in just three (3) minutes! Quite a challenge and lots of fun. This years selection of papers themed around:
mega-fauna extinctions (Bakker et al., 2016; Gill et al., 2009; van der Kaars et al., 2017),
impacts of human land use practices (Bitusik et al., 2018; Carson et al., 2014; Chepstow-Lusty et al., 2009; Gauthier et al., 2010; Tisdall et al., 2018), and
climatic drivers of vegetation change (Haug et al., 2001; Tierney et al., 2017; Tudhope et al., 2001).
For full list of papers presented see below.
In the second and third weeks (now ongoing) students get to deconstruct published chronologies and conduct time series analsis of multi-proxy datasets. Data for these excercises is frequently is extracted from databases such as Neotoma, Pangea, NOAA – paleoclimatology datasets database and the Global Charcoal Database – which shows the importance of these open access databases for developing effective research led eductation, as well as pushing forward to frontiers of research.