By Ariel McGee
Every summer since 2002, Assistant Professor of Biology Margaret Metz has led small groups of Lewis & Clark students on research programs to the Amazonian region of Ecuador. This trip is for Biology students and has a strong focus on the ecology of plant species found in the Amazon.
“My interests are in understanding the diversity of forests and how that diversity changes through time,” Metz said. “In forests around here, there are maybe 10 or 12 species of trees that are all competing and coexisting. In the rainforests where I work in Ecuador, one of the most if not the most diverse forests in the world, there are over 1200 different types of trees. It’s not simple to understand why that high level of diversity can co-exist. A lot of what I look at is why common trees don’t just take over in the rainforest and how rare species stay alive in the forest.”
The research program is focused on ecology and the diversity of tree species prevalent in the Amazon. Dr. Metz and her students spend their summers measuring the growth of tens of thousands of young specimens of various tree species in an attempt to understand how they are all surviving and peacefully coexisting. When the research program was initially founded in 2002, understanding the growth of tree species was the main goal. Over the years, the scope of this project has expanded to look at things such as the effects of climate change on the Amazonian basin.
“The forest changes year to year just because some years are warmer or colder. There are natural cycles that happen, but over the long term you should be able to separate that cyclic variation from a bigger direction climate change,” Metz said. “Even over the course of the 17 years that this project has been going on you can see that different things are happening in the Amazon.”
Students Holden Jones ’18 and Madeline Tracey ’18 participated in Metz’s research program last summer. In order to get to the research station, they had to take a flight into Quito, the capital city of Ecuador, take another flight to an Amazonian region and then drive several hours to the base that is located in Yasuni National Park. Dr. Metz and her students work in a sectioned off portion of the Park that is referred to as the ‘research plot.’
“The research station had air-conditioned dorms and meals were provided by really nice cooking staff,” Jones said. “We would get up really early and spend time in the research plot from about 6 a.m. to 12 or 1 p.m. We would come back, do lab work, rest and shower and then go to bed right after dinner.”
The Amazon is extremely hot and humid, and the researchers wore long sleeved shirts and pants in order to protect themselves from bugs like army ants, mosquitoes and bullet ants.
“We would always wake up earlier than we needed to so that we could walk slowly to the research plot and take notice to monkeys and incredible bird species,” Tracey said. “Holden would wake up earlier than all of us to birdwatch, and then he would point each of them out to us on the way to the plot.”
The Amazon often has massive rainfalls that can cause major flooding. In the days after a flood, Metz and her students would have to trek through deep mud and might even have to canoe in previously dry areas of the forest near the research station.
“On the second day we were all walking on the trail with a few of the Ecuadorian workers, and we came across the Echis snake, the most poisonous snake in the Amazon,” Tracey said. “There were also these giant bullet ants, and if you get bit it feels like a bullet wound. There were a few plots that were home to the bullet ants.”
This diversity of species created an effective learning space for the research students. They work among hundreds of species of bugs and mammals. In and around the research area the students saw tapirs, mammals that are similar to pigs, and many species of monkeys.
“The Amazon is very lush and thick and green,” Metz said. “I’ve been working in the Amazon for almost 20 years, but each year my students get to see the Amazon through new eyes and they love it and they are so excited. They help me to remember what seeing the Amazon for the first time is like and I want to continue this research project for as long as I can.”