This past summer I had the opportunity to gain field research experience in the tropical dry forests of Mexico. It was an incredibly unique experience that allowed me to not only learn from local scientists and students but to expand my knowledge of the Mexican culture and language as well. The majority of my time was spent at the Chamela Biological Station doing research on tree growth and species interactions.
While staying at the station I met many students from all over Mexico working on various projects. On days off we would pile into one of the station’s cars and head straight to the beach. Playa Negritos was the name of the closest and it was absolutely breathtaking.
I was able to snorkel and practice my Spanish accent with some of my new friends. It’s really amazing how even with a language barrier you can still really get to know and care about people. Of course there’s bound to be a lot of funny things said when you aren’t fluent in a language. Many times I would find myself laughing until my eyes started watering at a joke I misunderstood or just took in a totally ridiculous way. I was surprised at how open and willing to help everyone I met at the station was, despite my terrible accent (which is a little better now).
I spent on average about 8-9 hours a day working. The majority was out in the field hiking to different tree plots, documenting new growth as well as performing leaf counts and other herbivory measures. I also helped plant new seedling plots for further study as well as take images of the current canopy cover in existing plots. There are several trails that lead through the forests of Chamela. We would use them to find flagged trees and measure growth.
The main species interaction I looked at was how ants defend trees against herbivory from insects like caterpillars. One of the most interesting things we did was to stage ant versus caterpillar fights. We would place a caterpillar on a leaf and see how long it took before the ants attacking would cause the caterpillar to stop eating and fall off the leaf. This was one of the ways we measured ant aggressiveness. The general idea is the tree provides shelter for the ants while the ants in turn defend the leaves from herbivory allowing increased tree growth.
After a long day spent in the field, I would often run through trails to get a little conditioning in. My favorite days were when it would rain. There were some amazing storms that shook our rooms and lit the sky with flashes of lightning. The rain was always a nice break from the usual hot days and nights. One memorable night in particular a bunch of us students watched a movie (in Spanish of course) in the library and by the time we made it back to our rooms we were completely drenched from head to toe.
The awesome thing is that after a big rain, the forest almost blooms overnight with new leaves. The best view was from climbing to the top of the water tower and looking out. On a clear day you could see the ocean and by the time I was headed home all you could see was green for miles and miles.
The big picture take away of this experience for me was in conservation. Intricate species interactions are only possible for the most part in intact regions of the forest. In Mexico, these forests are in constant danger of being developed, especially due to their proximity to beaches. I don’t think the tropical dry forest is an ecosystem I will continue to study, but I will definitely take away lessons in research methods and analysis. The work I did was exhausting at times, but overall it was an experience that I will never forget.