A Student’s Day at Cocha Cashu’s Field Ecology Training Course

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A local Matsigenka child peers into the classroom to see what we are discussing.

A local Matsigenka child peers into the classroom to see what we are discussing.

Read Ron’s previous post, Would a Three-month Course in Remote Amazonian Field Site Change Your Life?

To convey something of what it’s like for a student participating in our field ecology training course at our Amazonian biological station, Cocha Cashu, in Peru, I’m sharing some of the details of what a typical day might be like for one of the lucky 10 students participating in this three-month crash course in tropical ecology and research methods.

4:40 a.m.
The student awakens to the distant roaring calls of the red howler monkey. If he didn’t know better, he would think he was hearing the roar of some ancient ferocious beast. He stretches and collects his thoughts for the day. What wonders will await him today…and what deprivations might he endure? He’s still tired from the late-night discussions about animal census techniques from last night.

6 a.m.
After conferring with some of his classmates about their to-do list for their group project on measuring mammal abundance and diversity, he pours a cup of coffee and enjoys a breakfast omelet. The topic of conversation is the sighting of the deadly bushmaster on a trail near their tent last night.

Camera trap photos reveal a nocturnal world rich with large mammals such as this giant anteater and her young.

Camera trap photos reveal a nocturnal world rich with large mammals such as this giant anteater and her young.

6:45 a.m.
The class gathers around their charismatic instructor, Cesar, for a briefing of today’s activities. He explains that today they will learn how to establish a vegetation plot to measure forest dynamics. He probes them with questions, asking them to explain how such data could be useful for understanding forest ecology and conservation. Then they begin the 2.5-mile (4 kilometers) trek to the site of today’s exercise. Along the way, he spots five species of monkeys, including the long-armed spider monkey that swings down low for a better look, the contentious capuchin monkey that dares to issue a threat against him, and the passive howler monkey that gazes complacently while it digests its last meal of leaves.

7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
The student and his classmates lay out the dimension of the plot, using a measuring tape and a compass. Precision is key, as the size of the plot must be standardized so it can be used to accurately assess the characteristics of the forest for comparison across time and space. Then begins the laborious process of measuring every tree, obtaining measures of “diameter at breast height,” tree height, tree density, and species diversity. The last measure, requiring the assistance of an instructor renowned for his knowledge of tree taxonomy, will fascinate him, as they will find that a single acre (hectare) of this forest will contain about 150 tree species. That’s more species than found in all of California!

1 p.m.
Tired, but full of data and new ideas about how this forest works, the class begins the journey back to camp for a late lunch. Ambling along, feet dragging from weariness, he spies some movement in the leaf litter by the trail. Upon closer inspection, he sees it is a lump of wriggling feathers, golden in hue. Startled, the ball of feathers breaks apart and becomes two birds that fly to a nearby branch. One seems to be courting the other, so he infers that he was witnessing mating. He flips through his field guide and learns that the birds were gilded barbets. I will have to write this in my journal tonight, he thinks, and later he’ll share his observations with the rest of the class.

Students share a meal with famed conservationist John Terborgh.

Students chat with famed conservationist John Terborgh. Photo credit: Dano Grayson

2:30 p.m.
Following lunch, he wishes he had time for a nap, but there is no rest for the weary. The class gathers into small groups to discuss their mammal data collect during their “line-transect” exercise last week. A report on the conclusions is due tomorrow. They have heated discussions about what the data mean and select the proper method for analyzing their data, occasionally getting assistance from one of the instructors.

5:30 p.m.
Satisfied with their conclusions, the group members break up, and he heads for the cocha (oxbow lake) for a quick dip to cool off, first scanning the water for caiman and hoping the piranhas are not hungry.

6:30 p.m.
Dinner time. The food is simple but wholesome and after the day’s efforts tastes better than it would at home. During dinner, he listens with fascination as one of his instructors tells stories of her time studying monkeys in faraway Indonesia and another student recounts her time spent studying birds in another part of the Amazon. Something resonates with him, and he makes a mental note: I want to do something like that for my independent research project. He’ll need to choose carefully, because he will invest more than two months of his life collecting data to answer his question of choosing.

Cocha Cashu staffer Fortunato shares a meal with local children in the Maizal Matsigenka community.

Cocha Cashu staffer Fortunato shares a meal with local children in the Maizal Matsigenka community.

8 p.m.
After cleaning his dishes, he settles in for the night’s lecture. In the past two weeks he’s heard from six different scientists. Most of them have told about their research experience here at Cocha Cashu, but some visiting scientists bring research tales from as far away as the North American arctic and China (the latter being from my own research experience with giant pandas). Tonight, he will learn about the scientific method: how to develop research questions, articulate hypotheses, and design studies to test them. To him, it’s a bit of a yawner, but he knows it’s important to learn if he is going to develop and test his own hypotheses.

10 p.m.
Finally, it’s bed time. Exhausted but excited about the day’s events, he heads down the little trail toward his tent, scanning with his headlamp for snakes, eyes glowing in the forest, or something else of interest. It doesn’t take him long to drift off to sleep, serenaded by a host of cicadas, crickets, frogs, and occasional unknown and eerie sounds of the night. Tomorrow, he knows, will be another big day.

Ron Swaisgood, Ph.D., is the Brown Chair/Director of Applied Animal Ecology for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research and the general scientific director of the Cocha Cashu Biological Station in Peru.

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