Why We’re Here – The Research

For those of you who have got the impression that so far my time in Ecuador has mostly been exploring, lying in a hammock and swimming, you’re wrong. Well, half wrong. Okay, just a little bit wrong, we have been doing a lot of that. But there’s a much more serious side to our life here: the research.

To preface the bulk of this post, I’ll just explain why I’m here: I’m 2 and a bit years into a degree in Biomedical Sciences with Industrial Placement at Manchester, and this is my placement. Heather is also on placement with me, she studies Zoology at Manchester and is a passionate animal lover, even the grizzly, scary, creepy ones… especially the grizzly, scary, creepy ones. Our aim over the course of this year in the Jungle is to complete research in an area of our choosing and produce scientifically viable results. If we work hard, then getting published could be on the cards.

We’ve both spent a long time coming up with a plan for our research proposals which mainly involved a lot of emailing, scrolling through PubMed, reading papers and chatting to Javier, the Ecuadorian station manager, about what would be possible. Javier has a degree in Forestry Engineering and has been working at the station for 6 years now. He’s affectionately nicknamed Jungle Dad and is sociable, generous, and a real joker. Even though most of his jokes are in Spanish and fly straight over our heads, he still makes us laugh with his faux-stern expressions, dad dancing and inability to say slept. “Slepech. Slepecha. Slepch?”

Heather’s main project will be investigating the Arachnid biodiversity here at Payamino. She was given a fantastic opportunity to work closely with an Arachnid specialist during her time here; they’ll complete the field work and research when he arrives at the station in January next year. ‘Arachnid Biodiversity Study’ means capturing as many spiders as possible, bringing them back to the station and identifying what species they are. Heather’s hoping to gain a greater appreciation of an animal that’s normally shunned in society and has a huge fear stigma attached to them. In her opinion, they’re actually underappreciated, beautiful creatures that aren’t nearly as scary as they seem. Already we’ve seen lots of spiders, including a baby tarantula (that we caught in a soup bowl) and many jumping spiders. Heather uses the word adorable, not something synonymous with spiders in my personal opinion, but it’s her project not mine. It’s a good thing I’m not scared of spiders (which my mother proudly attributes all credit to herself as she always made me and my sister get rid of the spiders in the house so she didn’t have to, thanks mum). Also, Heather will be continuing with the research on Heliconias, a native flowering plant, which was started by a previous placement student. The project is looking at the effects of genetic variation in Heliconia species and the associated insect communities. It will involve cutting off roots from existing plants and growing her own little, genetically-identical garden, then measuring the species diversity found between the two plants. Interesting stuff, plus Heliconias are really pretty.

My projects, which I’m very excited about, will be Fungi Biodiversity and knowledge about ethno-medicine in indigenous communities. Fungi are a largely under-researched, under-appreciated group of organisms. They are neither a plant nor an animal, but a whole kingdom to themselves. My project will be on the different types of flowering fungi found in Payamino. It will be impossible to do an all-inclusive biodiversity survey as a lot of fungal species are microscopic and I just don’t have the equipment to find them, so the project will be limited to fungi I can see with my eyes. There has been absolutely zero research into fungi biodiversity here, so I’m in unchartered territory and hopefully my research will be valuable to the scientific community. Once I’ve collected data on each fungi I find, I will get in touch with a fungi specialist either in Quito or the UK who can help me identify each species. Hopefully I’ll develop a comprehensive list of species found in this area. My interest in fungi started to develop in first year of Uni when I came to appreciate how diverse, interesting and spectacular they can be. For example, did you know that some species of fungi create their own jets of air in order to spread their spores further; some species are carnivorous, capable of punching holes in the cell walls of passing nematode worms and insects for food; and some have even teamed up with plants they live on and kill the insects for them then feed them the corpses. I started to see them as the research underdog of the natural world, and love the idea of contributing to this hugely unfinished puzzle piece of nature.

My second research project is quite close to my heart. I’ve always been interested in alternative medicine and how they practice medicine in different parts of the world, inspired by my own battle with illness, and had the idea of looking into medicine used in the indigenous communities here before I even applied for the placement. When I arrived, I found a book on the book shelf entitled ‘Plantas de Medicinales en Payamino’. I’m sure you can crack that Spanish on your own. The book was a catalogue of all the different plants used medicinally by the Kichua community, what they’re used for and how they’re prepared. I got in touch with the author of the book, Dr Brian Doyle – a researcher in the States, asking if there was any further research he wanted to do here, and if not, whether his research bought up some interesting questions that I could research myself. He replied with 3 large bullet points, each detailing a possible research area I could pursue, and said he was planning on coming back to Payamino next year to continue his research. This was the best possible news I could have hoped for. Bullet point number 1 turned out to be not so relevant after chatting with Javier who knows the area and communities really well. Bullet point number 2 was simply monitoring all the plant species year round; collecting samples for the National Herbarium in Quito and collecting data and pictures about the life cycle of each plant. Bullet point number 3 was by far the most interesting and challenging suggestion. Brian had recently published a paper that analysed the distribution of knowledge about traditional medicine across the community near the station. His suggestion was that I do the same thing, with improvements and a few alterations, in a few other indigenous communities, and use the data to compare knowledge between communities. Imagine: travelling to various indigenous communities in the rainforest, staying for a week or so and in that time surveying a random sample of the population using images of plants and a basic questionnaire. Queue huge excitement and the stomach-dropping realisation that I’m going to have to be near fluent in Spanish to pull this off. So at the moment I am doing my best to learn Spanish, with a general plan to do this field work next Easter.

So my plan is to get a chunk of the Fungi project done by Christmas and send over the data to a specialist to see what results I get; and learn Spanish rapido. There’s only so far you can get with audio-tapes, books and Duolingo, so Heather and I spent an intense week in el Coca having Spanish lessons with an Ecuadorian-but-lived-in-Norway-for-18-years English teacher, Fernando, doing 4 hours of lessons a day. It was a pretty hard week but we learnt a lot. On the Friday, we went to a bar (Papa Dance, a salsa bar on the river) with Fernando and met some of his other students learning English and found we could actually have a simple conversation and swap basic information about our lives. It was a triumphant moment.

The pace of life is still quite slow here as we travel to and from various cities on a weekly basis to get all the relevant documentation needed for our contracts with UEA and our Ecuadorian work visa, and as we adjust to the living conditions in the Rainforest. We’ve only been here a month but it already feels like a lifetime. This little clearing on the bank of el Rio Payamino has become our home and we love it. We both have high hopes for our research here and can’t wait to see our ideas and plans come to fruition. Let’s hope that in a year’s time, Heather and I can look back at the blog post and have succeeded in meeting our aims. Buena suerte a nosotros. Good luck to us.

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