Q: Growing up in Venezuela, what were your first experiences with wildlife that led you to devote your life to conservation biology?
A: My great grandfather, Adolfo Ernst, was a German naturalist who came to Venezuela to study the tropical environments and many of the animals and plants that live there. He wrote many research articles and created the national herbarium and biology department at the Central University of Venezuela. From the time I was very young, my family spoke about him, his expeditions to remote areas of the country, and the many studies he carried out. These stories interested me and I was always engaged in outdoor activities, boy scouts, and visits to the natural history museum. When I was 13 years old, after trying multiple times, I was accepted at the museum as an intern. Over the next ten years, I travelled in expeditions all over the country to all kind of environments and remote places collecting specimens of plants and animals and meeting the most incredible people. Nature and wildlife were always my great passion at the museum and later on, as a biology student at the Central University of Venezuela. Later, as a wildlife biology graduate student at Colorado State University, I deepened my knowledge and interest in biodiversity and conservation.
Q: You've been a conservation biologist with the Smithsonian Institution for the past 26 years and you've spent several years working on biodiversity programs in the Peruvian rain forest as well as the Andes. What are some of the projects that you've worked on in the region?
A: I had the opportunity to work and teach in most of the rain forests of the world. My work in Peru started in 1987, leading a Smithsonian expedition to study the biodiversity of the Manu National Park, one of the most remote and diverse places on earth at that time. It took us five days of travel from D.C. to reach our camp site in Pakitsa and five days back. We studied this magnificent area for over ten years and documented all aspects of biodiversity from large mammals to fishes, insects, and plants. Since that time, Peru has been developing its economy and natural resources in multiple ways, including exploration and development of new areas for oil and gas, mining, forestry, and others.
We have been working with energy development companies in Peru for nearly 20 years to integrate biodiversity conservation with sustainable development. We work together to identify areas of great value to biodiversity conservation that need to be avoided. Then, we identify the areas that will be impacted and work with the companies to design a process to minimize the impact of development on biodiversity. For areas where impact of development cannot be avoided, we provide science-based restoration programs to bring the areas back to their original or better condition. We also work with stakeholders to implement conservation programs to compensate for project impacts.
Several of the specific projects we are working on in the Amazon and Andes of Peru include understanding the impact of energy companies' seismic exploration on wildlife; designing and monitoring canopy bridges to maintain connectivity of the arboreal wildlife, including rare species of Amazon monkeys; working with communities to develop conservation programs; mapping and evaluating important conservation areas in the Amazon; studying Andean wetlands and the species they support; mapping the distribution of endangered species in some areas of the Andes; and implementing a marine monitoring program in the desert coastal area of Peru.
Q: You've had a lifelong interest in tropical birds and your Ph.D. research focused on the waterfowl of South America. What types of birds can Smithsonian travelers look forward to discovering on this program?
A : Peru is one of the most bird diverse countries in the world. The birds of the Amazon are quite spectacular and unique and adapted in multiple ways to the very diverse habitats of the region. There are many species that live closer to the rivers and wetlands that we will be visiting. Some of my favorites include over ten different species of flight catchers, the short-tailed swift, white-collared swallow and the brown-chested martin, the russet-backed oropendola, the yellow-rumped cacique and the orange-backed troupial, several species of colorful tanagers and manikins, ant birds, toucans and woodpeckers, the jacamars and motmots, trogons, the hoatzin, parrots, and some of the big hawks and kites.
Q: Can you please shed light on the natural history of the Amazon River Basin, which makes it the source of one-fifth of all free-flowing fresh water?
A: Between 5 and 23 million years ago, the early Andes began to emerge, reversing the water drainage of lowland central South America from the Guiana shield east to west to west to east in what is now the Amazon Basin (6,869,000 square km). Thirteen major watersheds collect water from nine countries and all of this water enters the Amazon. The Andes of Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia capture the highest precipitation of the region and all this water drains into the Amazon. The Amazon is the largest river system in the world with 14,000 miles of waterways, including 1,100 tributaries of which 17 are over 1,000 miles long. From the Andes to the Atlantic, the Amazon River travels around 4,000 miles. The mouth of the Amazon is 300 miles wide and 500 billion cubic feet of water per day are discharged into the Atlantic. The silt deposited at the mouth of the Amazon River has created the largest river island in the world, Marajo Island.
Q: What are some of the distinguishing characteristics of the terra firma forest that Smithsonian travelers will be exploring?
A: Travelers will have the opportunity to visit a terra firma forest that has a canopy over 30 meters high with a high diversity of tree species. The forest, which is poor in nutrients, is situated on well drained terrain that is not flooded during the rainy season. Under these conditions, this terra firma forest does not receive nutrients by regular river floods and the plants and soil organisms are very effective in decomposing organic material such as dead trees and leaves and recycling it back into the forest. We will have the opportunity to see the complex root system of the vegetation in this forest to capture the scarce nutrients. The forest trees provide the fruits and leaves that the mammals and birds depend on as the major food sources. We will be able to see or hear species of animals unique to this type of forest, such as the evasive tinamous, ant eater birds, and poison arrow frogs known for the beautiful colors that are used to warn predators that they are poisonous. This forest, when protected, can support a larger number of species of Amazon monkeys and other game species such as peccary, tapir, and forest deer.
Q: How does plant life in the igapó, the seasonally flooded forest that Smithsonian travelers will be exploring in the Pacaya-Samiria Reserve, differ from what is seen along the main course of the Amazon?
A: The Pacaya-Samiria Reserve has a mixture of flooded forest, wetlands, and lagoons and most of the area will be flooded during this time of the year. Pink and silver dolphins will be a frequent sight, feeding in the flooded wetlands of the Reserve, especially in areas where the rivers converge. We will observe numerous birds associated with wetlands, such as egrets, three species of king fishers, cormorants, hawks, several species of parrots, jacanas, and many more. The Reserve is a good place to spot families of howler monkeys and other monkey species, as well as sloths. We will have the opportunity to learn about the river flood cycles and the livelihood of some of the local people that fish in the area. At the park ranger station, we will learn about conservation issues related to the challenges of managing and protecting such a large area.
Q: What can Smithsonian travelers look forward to discovering on the night field trip in the rain forest?
A: Night in the rain forest and along the river will bring another amazing experience for travelers. The nocturnal creatures are most active early in the evening and at dusk. The great and common Potoos and nightjards are frequently observed perching on branches or flying. Many species of bats that specialize in different sources of food such as fruits, insects, frogs, and fishes are common masters of the night. Hundreds of frogs sing along the wetlands and millions of insects are fully active. Caimans' red eyes can be spotted easily and occasional elusive potos can be observed eating fruits from a tall tree.