Collaborative conservation in the Manu landscape

There are no lone rangers in conservation science. The challenges and complexities of figuring out what’s going on, why, and what to do about it, are too much for any one person, no matter how brilliant and motivated. So, we look for opportunities to collaborate with other people so that we can all move toward our goals. It helps if they can carry a heavy backpack, swing a machete, and have a good sense of humor!

After several years collaborating with the Spectacled Bear Conservation Society in the dry forest of northwest Peru, we’ve achieved most of what we set out to do there and it’s time to tackle another set of questions elsewhere. Because most Andean bears now live in humid montane forests, we’ve hoped to begin work back in the clouds and fog. We’ve found new collaborators working on the eastern slope of the Andes, above Cocha Cashu in the Manu landscape.

The Andes Biodiversity and Ecosystem Research Group (ABERG) includes researchers and students from 12 universities who investigate the biodiversity and ecosystem functions in this area. To get our feet wet (hopefully not literally) as we begin figuring out the logistics of how to get from point A to point B without falling off cliff C, while engaging in worthwhile research, we’ve begun collaborating with a MS student in ABERG, Danny Lough.

Danny’s working to replicate and expand a prior investigation of seed predation. Most seeds are eaten or damaged and very few ever germinate and grow into new plants. Those few survivors affect the ecology and behavior of a complex web of animals, including bears. Past research has shown that the survival of large seeds in this landscape generally increases from lower elevations to higher elevations but at intermediate elevations there’s a big dip in survival of large seeds. Danny’s interested in which animals take the seeds and why more seeds disappear at the middle elevations. There are about 60 different species of animals in this landscape that could take the seeds and there are various hypotheses for what could be going on.

For example, is there a greater diversity of seed predators at the intermediate elevations? Or, is there a particular animal species living at intermediate elevations that is a particularly lethal seed predator? One way to evaluate the possible explanations is to place seeds in the forest and then record which animals take them. For the past few months we’ve been working with Danny to use camera traps to record who takes the seeds and to start collecting data on the distribution of large mammals, including bears.

Working on the slopes of the Andes is, well, challenging. It requires not only collaborators, but also four working limbs, a strong heart, and clear lungs. Although I unfortunately sustained a shoulder injury that kept me out of the field for several months, Nick Pilfold was able to cover for me. Unfortunately for Nick, he’s substantially taller than most Peruvians and so he learned quickly to look out for branches overhanging the trails.

Hopefully within the next few months Danny will learn what’s happening to the seeds and we’ll start learning which habitats the bears are using, at which elevations, all the way from high mountain grasslands down to the lowland forests. This is going to be quite an adventure!

Here’s the ABERG website: