Independent Research at Finca Las Piedras
The Alliance for a Sustainable Amazon is a research-based organization, and the main way we work towards conserving biodiversity and other natural resources in our region is by conducting experiments and observational studies that generate the knowledge needed to make informed decisions regarding the management of those resources. We lead several long-term projects, including various biological inventories, a study of the host plant use of the Lepidoptera, and plant phenology monitoring. However, given the paucity of research being conducted in our part of the Amazon, there are many other questions, both broad and more narrow, that need to be explored. In addition to providing training in the basic skills and knowledge needed for field biology and conservation in the tropics, we view our internship program as a way of promoting this basic research that is so badly needed. Thus, at the ASA, we are training the next generation of tropical biologists and conservationists while helping to contribute important knowledge in the process.
Pre-proposal (due before arriving)
We recommend that all interns submit a brief (<1 page) summary of the research they propose to conduct at Finca Las Piedras, at least 1 month before arriving in Peru. As this document outlines in more detail below, this helps to ensure that the research being proposed will be feasible given the various constraints in the field, and will ensure that interns maximize their time at the site conducting, rather than simply planning, their research. Thinking about this ahead of time will also allow you to do a literature review, which will greatly help you to frame your study, determine why and how it is justified, know whether it is novel, and begin to make a plan to answer your question. ASA academic faculty will review all proposals and work with interns to work out important preliminary details before they arrive at Finca Las Piedras. The full proposal will be due during the third week of the internship in Peru (see below), so at this early stage we only recommend a very brief outline of your proposed research; don’t worry about including too much detail about the methodology at this point, focus more on the ecological question or taxonomic group that interests you.
Full proposal (due beginning of week 3)
The project proposal is a key part of the research process, and takes place before any data collection begins. It is critical that the proposal clearly makes a case for the importance of the proposed research, i.e., that it is justified. This is also where the methodology that will be used to gather data and answer the question of interest is laid out. The proposal should include the following sections:
Introduction. This is where you introduce your audience to your topic, and define the question that the project will attempt to answer. The introduction should begin broad, first hooking the reader and then going on to provide all of the information necessary to understand why this research is being conducted and why it is important or interesting. The introduction should build to the proposed research question, which is presented at the very end.
Methods. In this section you will clearly outline the methodology you intend to use to gather data and answer your question. The methods section serves two purposes: 1) First, it allows others to evaluate the proposed methodology, to ensure that it is adequate to answer the question being asked, that there are no important sources of bias, etc. 2) Second, this allows others to replicate and verify the study’s findings. In science, one study does not create a rule; only by accumulating evidence does the scientific community converge on general patterns, theories, or laws of the natural world. Replication is a crucial part of that process, and this is greatly facilitated by clearly-defined methods.
Expected results. In this section you will outline what you expect to find after completing your field study. This is also the place to discuss what might go wrong, what might result if it does, and how to address potential problems. Be especially attentive to possible biases in the experimental design, as well as other factors that might be out of your control, that could present problems collecting data or interpreting findings. The better you think about possible pitfalls at this stage, the better you will be able to avoid problems and deal with them as they arise in the field.
Evaluation, corrections, resubmission (end week 3)
At the beginning of week three your full project proposal will be due, and it will be returned to you by the end of the week with corrections, comments, and suggestions by ASA academic faculty. Interns will also meet individually with faculty to discuss the proposal, and to formulate a strategy for beginning data collection the following week. Make sure that you meet the deadline set for turning your proposal, to ensure that faculty have enough time to properly evaluate your plan.
Field data collection (starts beginning week 4)
This is the stage of the research project that will occupy the bulk of your time in the field. You should aim to spend as much time as possible in the field collecting data, to make sure that you have as much information as you need to draw reliable inferences from your data set. Two or three months may sound like a comfortable amount of time for a field study, but in reality this is a very short; in the field things almost always take longer than expected, and there are always setbacks that consume time and energy. Make sure that in your project proposal you have a realistic plan in place before beginning data collection, and that you have thought through any possible pitfalls and how to deal with them efficiently. Above all, your proposed research topic should be realistic given the resources at your disposal, especially the time you have to do it.
Although data collection will begin during week four of the internship, this initial data collection should be viewed as a ‘pilot’ period. During this week, you will set out to begin gathering the data you need to answer your research question, but also this will be a time during which you will work out any kinks in your protocol. Regardless of the care you put into designing your methodology, it is likely that once you set out into the field you will discover that certain things will need to be modified. You should work closely with ASA faculty during this period to discuss and implement any changes that emerge as necessary, whether they are minor or major.
Sharing your research (due during last week)
A study is of little use if its findings are not available to others. When you publish your results, you allow others to build upon your work, and since no one researcher or research team can do all of the work needed to make sense of the complexity of the natural world and how it functions, this is how science advances. Even Isaac Newton, one of the world’s most brilliant thinkers, admitted that he had made his revolutionary scientific discoveries only by ‘standing on the shoulders of giants.’ Therefore, all interns are be required to submit a final research report upon completion of the data collection period at Finca Las Piedras, which will be published and publicly available on the ASA website, as well as archived in our internal research library. The final report should be a shortened version of a peer-reviewed scientific article, and should contain the following sections:
Introduction. In this section, just as you did in your proposal, you will outline why this study is novel, interesting, or important, provide the reader with all of the essential information they need to understand your study in its broader context, and lay out very clearly the question that you have addressed. Remember to start broad, first hooking the reader and then proceeding in a logical fashion to the question, providing all of the important background information. Again, the main purpose of this section is to contextualize your study and make it clear not only what you have done, but why you have done it.
Once you have collected your data and analyzed it, you might be surprised to arrive at something unexpected—perhaps your data suggests that your hypothesis was incorrect, maybe you think the study did, in fact, suffer from one of the pitfalls you foresaw in the proposal, or maybe something entirely unanticipated occurred. Another possibility, one which occurs frequently in science, is that you stumble upon something that you had not considered at all, i.e., you are able to answer a question that is marginally related or even totally unrelated to your original question, and that is perhaps even more interesting or compelling. If this is the case, it is okay at this stage to reframe your study, or continue as originally planned and produce another report entirely regarding this new question. Good data sets will often allow you to tackle several questions, and you should always maximize your hard-earned dataset’s utility.
Methods. In this section you will outline exactly what you did in the field, similar to the proposal’s methods section. And, just like in the proposal, the goal of this section is to allow other scientists to evaluate the appropriateness of your methods to the question being asked, to catch any biases or mistakes that might have been made, and to replicate the study in another system. Make sure that you modify the methods section in the final report if anything has changed from the proposal.
Results. In this section you will present your findings. Do not interpret your results here, that is for the next section. The main findings of most studies should be easily presented visually, as a graph, table, or other figure, and should summarize the results so that a reader can very quickly see what was found. There are a massive number of articles being published today by the global scientific community, and you can ensure that your work is read and cited by making the main point and the most important findings of your study very easy to obtain, at a glance. Aesthetics also counts—try to make your figures as visually appealing and as easy to follow as you can.
Discussion. In this final section, you will discuss your results. Did your results support your hypothesis? If so, then discuss in more detail why this is important. Did you find something unexpected? If you did, then you should discuss why this might have been. This is where you will discuss possible pitfalls, how you dealt with them, and how you could do better in the future. Finally, you should discuss in detail what should come next. Perhaps you have answered your question satisfactorily, in which case you should propose new questions to follow. If you have not answered your question, what should be done next time? Science never stops, and tomorrow’s discoveries will be built upon those made today; make sure you clearly lay out what the next step is, to keep momentum going in your field.
This is another important step in the research process, and as a professional working in conservation or the natural sciences you will be required to present the findings of your work to your peers at meetings and conferences. The advantage of an oral presentation is that you will often have an audience that might not otherwise read your published work, but to be effective you will need to plan carefully your strategy to condense your work into the short format of a talk, which usually are no more than a few minutes. The oral presentation should essentially cover all of the important components of the research report, including introduction, methods, results, and a discussion.
Each intern will have 10 minutes to present their research to the residents of Finca Las Piedras during the last week of the internship, which will be followed by a 5 minute question period. One of the most difficult aspects of planning an oral presentation is condensing the entire research project into only a few minutes; it is highly recommended that you practice your presentation at least a couple of times, especially if you have not given such a presentation in the past. It helps to only include the most essential information in the presentation; those interested in more detail can refer to your published research report.
What projects are feasible during an internship?
Deciding on a project topic or question is, for many people, one of the most challenging parts of the research process. However, there is a pair of approaches that might make the process more manageable:
1) Question-driven approach. We conduct research about the natural world because we want to better understand how it functions or why something is the way it is. For example, how do so many species coexist in a west Amazonian rainforest? Or, for those that are more interested in the practical consequences of human disturbance, say, what are the impacts of disturbance on biological communities? Perhaps the ideal way to conduct field research is to begin with such a question. Then, the next step is to think about a strategy for answering it. If you are interested in the first question posed above, for instance, you might begin by clearly defining the exact question you want to answer. Again, you will be examining ‘how do so many species coexist in a west Amazonian rainforest?’ Then you should think about a system that would be ideal for tackling that question, since you clearly can not study every species of plant, animal, and fungus at your field site. Although it might be difficult to decide which taxon to study, it might help to consider the resources at your disposal. That is, for which group do you have the time, equipment, and expertise to study? In addition, for which group can you reasonable expect to gather enough data to draw any inferences? You might have camera traps that allow us to study large vertebrates, for example, but in two or three months you might not capture enough individuals to do much data analysis. Insects, on the other hand, are cheap and easy to study, and in the time available you can realistically expect to collect many individuals and even species. So you will potentially study insects, but which group? Dung beetles come immediately to mind, since they are diverse in both diversity and habit, are easily sampled, and there is already a fair amount of taxonomic and ecological knowledge of the group since they are comparatively well-studied throughout the Neotropics. Now you have a question, as well as a potential focal group, and the rest of the details will more easily fall into place after some careful thought and discussion with your peers and supervisors.
2) Taxon-driven approach. Many people arrive in the Amazon with a good idea of a group of plants or animals that interest them, and decide that they would like to spend time conducting research on that group. These groups often contain species that are charismatic, ecologically important, or of particular conservation concern; examples in our region include butterflies, macaws, or top predators such as large birds of prey, caiman, or jaguars. A useful first step if this situation applies to you is to ask ‘what information is currently unavailable for my group of interest?’ That is, are there any important gaps in our knowledge about this group that would further our understanding of its biology? It is also important to always ask if this knowledge is justified by the expense of time and/or resources that would be required to acquire it. Alternatively, you might ask ‘to what question or research topic is my group particularly suited to pursuing?’ For example, if you are interested in dung beetles, you might determine that given their taxonomic and ecological diversity, this group is ideal as a model system for exploring the factors underlying the structure and functioning of diverse Amazonian communities (see above).
Whether you approach the formulation of your research question by beginning with an ecological question or with a taxonomic group of interest, don’t forget rule number one when contemplating a field research project: ‘Is the research project that I am proposing realistic given the time, budget, and materials available?’ ASA academic faculty and staff are excellent resources to help you determine if your proposed research will be feasible as an intern at Finca Las Piedras. Another important thing to consider is if and how your research can complement work already underway at the field site. Past interns have completed research projects that not only are interesting as stand-alone studies, but that also contribute meaningfully to planned or current research being conducted by the ASA. For example, one intern with a keen interest in bats completed a study of natural bat roosting sites, which will be useful when developing bat houses that will aid in producing fertilizer (bat guano), promoting the pollination of certain plants, aiding in forest regeneration, and controlling local insect populations. However, nearly all of our planned or current research projects can be facilitated by short term projects conducted by our interns.
The ASA may provide basic supplies to interns that can be used to complete independent research projects. Example materials include basic tools (hammer, measuring tape, rulers, shovels, etc.), buckets, scrap wood, and electronic equipment such as GPS units. However, please keep in mind that our stock of these items is limited, and we can not guarantee the availability of any equipment for use by interns. Therefore, we recommend that interns either bring any essential equipment with them to Peru or otherwise plan to purchase it once in the country. Except for many electronic gadgets, most basic supplies can be acquired in Puerto Maldonado, the nearest major town to Finca Las Piedras. The ASA is happy to help interns locate these supplies, but we do not generally purchase these materials for intern projects, except in rare circumstances.
Another important thing to keep in mind when planning your research project at Finca Las Piedras is internet access. We currently do not have wifi at the field site, and although the internet can be accessed from the site using a smart phone connected to the local network (Claro), access is unreliable and almost never good enough for serious web surfing. A relatively good internet connection is available at several internet cafés in the district capital of Planchon, including one café that offers wifi, which is about a half hour walk from Finca Las Piedras followed by a ~10 minute ride in a shared public taxi (S/2-3). The rate in Planchon is S/1.50 (approximately $0.45) per hour. Internet is also widely available in Puerto Maldonado, and many interns spend at least some of their weekends in town at least in part to take advantage of this.
Successful past projects
Wild cacao (Theobroma cacao) survey and mapping at Finca Las Piedras, Madre de Dios, Peru – Zephyr Dang, September 2017
Cacao, the plant from which chocolate is derived, has been harvested throughout the Amazon basin for thousands of years. The ‘chuncho’ variety, which is local to Madre de Dios and surrounding areas, is potentially highly marketable and locally readily available for creating agricultural stock. This project aimed to determine the local abundance and distribution of C. theobroma plants in the rainforest at Finca Las Piedras, and to evaluate the plants’ optimal natural growing conditions. This information will allow us to compare different cacao agroforestry systems, and in so doing, promoting cacao as an alternative to current unsustainable agricultural practices in our region.
Herpetofaunal diversity and abundances change from abandoned agricultural areas over edge habitat to terra firma forest in the Amazon – Tobias Süess, September 2017
The creation of forest edge habitat resulting from human activity has been well documented to influence biological communities by altering species composition, abundance, and distribution. However, little is known about these effects in our region, where the recent completion of the Interoceanic Highway has led to a rapid increase in deforestation and attendant edge effects. This project aimed to examine the effects of forest edge creation on herpetofauna (reptiles and amphibians) at Finca Las Piedras.
Read the full project report .
A Scarlet macaw nesting box built for their conservation at Alliance for a Sustainable Amazon – Maddy Stauder, September 2017
Parrots include some of the most threatened bird species in the world. Most parrots are obligate secondary cavity nesters, including scarlet macaws (), which nest almost exclusively in natural hollows of the largest emergent rain forest trees (., ironwood, sp.). As these trees disappear due to widespread illegal logging, macaw breeding success is lowered as nest hollows and thus breeding opportunities are reduced. This project, which was started by M. Stauder and remains ongoing at Finca Las Piedras, will boost macaw reproduction using artificial nest boxes in the Brazil nut () harvesting region of Madre de Dios, a region that is home to extensive forests that have been selectively logged for Dipteryx and other hardwood species, but which retain the majority of large Brazil nut trees in which nest boxes can be located.
An Estimation of Carbon in the Living Above Ground Biomass of Finca las Piedras – Laura Coomber, September 2017
Land use changes, especially the conversion of tropical rainforests to agriculture and pastureland, are one of the most important producers of greenhouse gasses and thus climate change globally. In this study, the amount of carbon in the above ground living biomass of the forested area of Finca Las Piedras was estimated using ground-based inventory methods. The average biomass per hectare was 404.02 T dry weight ha-1, suggesting a significant carbon store of previously logged forests in the region and a large potential contribution of the conservation of degraded tropical forests to climate change mitigation.
Assessing the sustainability of local farming practices in the vicinity of Finca Las Piedras, Madre de Dios, Peru – Joao Vilca, October 2017
Traditional ‘slash and burn’ agricultural practices were practiced for thousands of years throughout the Amazon basin without, as far as we know, driving a noticeable decline in biodiversity or other natural resources. Today, however, higher human densities, greater demand for tropical agricultural products, and greatly improved technology have made this shifting form of agriculture highly unsustainable. This project aimed to evaluate the sustainability of farming practices in the vicinity of Finca Las Piedras, and forms the basis for a diagnostic survey that will evaluate the potential for cacao (Theobroma cacao) as a more sustainable agricultural alternative in the region.
Discerning diurnal roost preferences of cavity roosting Neotropical bats for the purpose of designing successful artificial bat roosts – Angela Brierly, August 2017
In the Neotropics bats pollinate plants, disperse seeds, and regulate insect populations. However, deforestation and selective logging are increasingly eliminating preferred diurnal roosting sites, potentially negatively impacting bat species that roost in these sites. of bats available for pollination, propagation, and insect predation. In order to preserve and encourage the essential ecosystem services of bats at Finca Las Piedras, we need to understand the diurnal roosting preferences of existing bat colonies in the area. I propose to conduct a survey of tree and log cavities at Finca Las Piedras, then assess the roost characteristics that bats prefer, allowing us to design artificial roosts that have a high likelihood of being colonized.
Potential future projects
Biological Research & Monitoring
-Insects: butterflies (Papilionoidea), tiger moths (Erebidae: Arctiinae), dung beetles (Scarabaeidae), leaf-footed bugs (Coreidae)
-Plants: cacao & relatives (Sterculiaceae), Solanaceae, timber trees
-Fruits & seeds
Experimenting with methods for gathering honey from stingless bees (Apidae: Melponini)
Butterfly roadkill: mortality due to vehicular collision on Interoceanic Highway, especially during annual migration
Butterfly feeding ecology: oviposition & host plant choice experiments for clearwing butterflies (Nymphalidae: Ithomiini)
Abundance, distribution, and production potential of vanilla (Orchidaceae: Vanilla spp.)
Experimental plots: Succession and forest regeneration (potential management to speed recolonization of abandoned agricultural land, favor establishment of species of economic importance, etc.)
And many, many more…
Sustainable Tropical Agriculture
Production of compost and/or biochar and efficacy as organic fertilizer
Integrated pest management: effects of intercropping on pest & natural enemy abundance, damage, and crop yields
Experimental plots: effects of intercropping, no-till, and shade on crop production
Shade house best practices (germination trials across various substrates, planting depths, percent shade, etc.)
Best practices for organic vegetable production
Methods for rearing soldier fly (Stratiomyidae; e.g., Hermetia illucens) larvae using kitchen waste
Abundance, distribution, and production potential of vanilla (Orchidaceae: Vanilla spp.)
And many, many, more…