Our work in the Peruvian Amazon
Biological Research & Monitoring
The rainforests of southeastern Peru shelter more species of plants and animals than almost anywhere else on earth. Unfortunately, this unmatched biodiversity is threatened by a variety of human activities, including uncontrolled extraction of natural resources and the unsustainable expansion of the agricultural frontier.
Our Biological Research and Monitoring programs aim to conserve biodiversity and wildlife in the southeastern Peruvian Amazon.
We achieve biodiversity conservation through a two-step process:
First, we gather, compile, and promote the collection of the basic biological data needed to monitor changes in plant and animal populations over time due to human activities, including hunting, habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation, and climate change. We accomplish this through ASA-led data collection projects, as well as through internship and scholarship programs designed to attract students and researchers to southeastern Peru.
We then use these data to develop management strategies for plant and animal species or groups of species of key ecological or conservation importance in the region. Management strategies are developed in collaboration with our regional partners in government, the non-profit sector, and ecotourism.
Biological Research & Monitoring Projects in Peru
Biological Inventories & monitoring
Although the rain forests of the western Amazon are among the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet, they are also among the most poorly studied. We do not know to any degree of certainty, for instance, how many species are present in our region, nor do we know even the basic biology of most species. Our biological inventories aim to produce species lists at our study site – the most basic biological information upon which many other ecological or conservation studies are based – that are currently lacking for most plant and animal species. Focal groups of plant and animals include:
Environmental change—habitat loss and conversion and hunting are increasing rapidly in Madre de Dios—are likely having negative impacts on mammals in the region. The loss of these species, in turn, has cascading effects, including the disruption of food webs and altered rainforest communities resulting from the elimination of important plant dispersers. We are using camera traps to assess the mammalian community at Finca Las Piedras and surrounding rainforest and agricultural habitats, and to monitor changes in populations over time.
A bird monitoring study is ongoing at Finca Las Piedras and has two main goals. First, we aim to document species occurrences and improve the FLP species list. This information is useful in quantifying local and regional biodiversity, and currently lacking for most sites in the region. Second, we are gathering quantitative data on bird abundances to track declines or growth of different species as land-use change continues in the region, and to discover differences in the avian community between seasons, times of day, and habitats.
Herpetofauna (reptiles & amphibians)
Tropical reptile and amphibian species are facing serious threats: habitat loss, and declining populations due to the amphibian fungal pathogen Chytridiomycosis. Therefore, we consider surveys of this group to be of particular urgency. Data gathered regarding reptile and amphibian species presence, absence, and abundance will be useful in understanding both the impacts of these threats and how we can protect as many species as possible.
Insects and other invertebrates represent the overwhelming majority of earth's biodiversity, yet almost nothing is known about even how many species, exactly, exist. Some one million species are currently known to science, with perhaps many millions more awaiting discovery. We are inventorying several key groups of insects at Finca Las Piedras, including Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) and beetles. Our goal is to build species lists for these groups which will form the foundation for further study in insect ecology and biology, as well as their importance in Amazonian ecosystems.
The Amazon rainforest, and the western Amazon in particular, is the world's most diverse region in terms of plants. At the Cocha Cashu Biological Station, in Manu National Park's lowland rainforest, botanists have identified at least 1,460 species, with many more certainly awaiting discovery. Outside of this site, however, almost nothing is known about the diversity or abundance of plant species in the region. We are conducting inventories of trees and other plants, with a special focus on species of special economic and/or conservation importance. These data will be useful in identifying priority areas for conservation efforts and to track changes in forest composition as human impacts evolve in the region.
More species of insects inhabit the western Amazon than anywhere else on earth. Pictured above are katydids (family Tettigoniidae), demonstrating an impressive variety of strategies for remaining hidden from predators. Photo: Geoff Gallice
A student uses camera traps to monitor rain forest mammals. Photo: Geoff Gallice
A female blue-crowned trogon (Trogon curucui) at Finca Las Piedras, one of several hundred species occurring at the site. Photo: Geoff Gallice
Click here for a complete species list for Finca Las Piedras
Phenology refers to the timing of fruiting and flowering of plants. This information is key to understanding how diverse Amazonian plant communities function, how plants respond and adapt to climate change, and also for forest restoration work. Phenological information is currently lacking for most species in our study region, and our goal is to gather it for key plant groups, including trees and other species of ecological importance or conservation concern. To do so, we have developed a long-term monitoring protocol that includes weekly and monthly surveys of fruiting and flowering of key plant species.
Species of interest:
Brazil nut (Bertholletia excelsa)
This is the southeastern Peruvian Amazon’s leading non-timber forest product, and contributes significantly to the region’s overall economy. Brazil nuts can not be grown in plantations in the Amazon – pests, including endemic plant diseases, decimate the trees when they’re grown close together – and thus much of the standing rain forest outside of protected areas in the region has been set aside by the Peruvian government as extractive reserves. However, a looming demographic crisis driven by the overharvest of nuts and deforestation and forest degradation threaten the activity's long-term sustainability. If Brazil nuts are no longer viable economically, much of the rain forest that has been set aside as concessions for their harvest will likely disappear. Our program in Madre de Dios targets reforestation with Brazil nut saplings, improved silvicultural practices, and increasing profitability for harvesters.
We currently monitor a number of trees that are spread between the forested portion of Finca Las Piedras and the property's abandoned agricultural fields and regenerating forest. This presents the opportunity for a simple comparison of phenology and yields between interior/exterior trees, and will allow us to understand the impact of agricultural expansion on Brazil nut harvesting in the region, and the role of edge effects in shaping phenology and output.
Aguaje (Mauritia flexuosa)
We are also monitoring aguaje palms, which grow in a palm swamp or 'aguajal' on the Finca Las Piedras property. These palms produce a fruit that is another important non-timber forest product in Madre de Dios. In addition to the cutting of trees to harvest fruit and palm weevil larvae that colonize fallen trees, climate change and the destruction of swamp habitat for agriculture and gold mining in the region threaten the long term viability of the species' harvest. Phenology data collected at the field site will help managers determine the impacts of these threats on them.
Understanding the timing of fruiting and flowering is more important than ever as the global climate changes due to human activity. Photo: Geoff Gallice
Binoculars are the tool of choice for observing flowers and fruits high in the rain forest canopy. Photo: Geoff Gallice
Butterfly Diversity and Biology
Although tropical insects comprise the largest group of animals on earth and are essential to the functioning of ecosystems (e.g., as pollinators, integral components of food webs, selective pressures on plants, etc.), almost nothing is known about even the basic biology of most species. In the Amazon, scientists do not know how many insect species there are to within even an order of magnitude – that is, there may be 1, 10 or even 100 million! We also don't know very much or even anything at all about the distribution, abundance, or conservation status of the majority of species. We are particularly interested in the order Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), and our goals with this project are two fold:
Generate basic biological information that will serve as the basis for further ecological and biological study, and which can be used to assess the threat status of butterflies in the southeastern Peruvian Amazon. This includes the number of species present in the Madre de Dios region, as well as their abundances and regional distributions. There are an estimated 1,500-2,000 butterfly species present in Madre de Dios, yet data are currently unavailable for nearly all species in the region.
Generate basic information regarding the natural history of butterflies in Madre de Dios—in particular, butterfly host plant records. A butterfly’s food plant is perhaps its most critical resource and, given that as many as one quarter or more of the world’s plant species are thought to be threatened with extinction, these data are urgently needed to quantify butterfly species’ threat status. Given the importance of insect herbivores to rainforest ecology, butterfly natural history data generated through this study will also be important to our understanding of how the rainforest ecosystem functions.
The western Amazon is the world's most important hotspot for biodiversity, and butterflies are no exception: there are at least 1,500 species in Peru's Madre de Dios department alone. Photo: Geoff Gallice
Examining a caterpillar at Finca Las Piedras. A key component of this project is documenting butterfly host plants, a key resource for these organisms. Natural history data are currently unavailable for the majority of butterfly species in our region, and this project aims to fill major knowledge gaps. Photo: Geoff Gallice
Artificial Macaw Nest Boxes
Macaws are among the largest and most beautiful members of the parrot family, and a true symbol of the Amazon. Due to their extreme beauty, they are heavily sought-after for the local and international pet trades. In addition, widespread selective logging removes the largest trees from the rainforest landscape (e.g., ironwood, Dipteryx spp.), which are favored by macaws as nesting sites. This project has several goals: 1) Examine the efficacy in our area of two box designs that have been deployed previously with success elsewhere in Amazonia, and 2) Provide nesting opportunities for macaws in an area with scarce natural nest hollows, thus immediately boosting breeding success at the field site.
Although some work has explored the effectiveness of artificial boxes in pristine rainforests in our region, none have examined their use in previously logged forests, such as those that comprise the extensive Brazil nut concessions that surround the study site. These forests have been logged for several species of marketable timber but large Brazil nut trees—which are ideal for the placement of boxes—are generally left standing. Thus, a third contribution important will be the creation of a replicable model that others in our area can follow, enhancing the project’s long-term prospects for success.
ASA Resident Naturalist Dave Klinges helps place a wooden macaw box 100 feet high in a Brazil nut (Bertholletia excelsa) tree at Finca Las Piedras. Artificial nest boxes can boost nesting success as natural cavities in large rain forest trees are lost to illegal logging. Photo: Geoff Gallice
Sustainable Tropical Agriculture
Agriculture in the southeastern Peruvian Amazon is centered on intensive production of cash crops, especially papaya at present. As infertile tropical soils are quickly exhausted, farmers must regularly clear rainforest in order to maintain production, leading to a continual expansion of the agricultural frontier.
Our Sustainable Tropical Agriculture projects aim to reduce deforestation by increasing agricultural efficiency, enhancing traditional farming practices, and promoting the cultivation of more environmentally-friendly crops.
We promote, support, and carry out research to understand the agricultural practices and crops that lead to the highest yields, the highest incomes for local farmers, and the fewest negative environmental impacts.
Our research efforts have no impact if they do not change peoples' actions. A key part of our strategy, therefore, is to support and provide technical assistance Amazonian farmers based on our research, or otherwise on the best available evidence.
Sustainable Tropical Agriculture Projects in Peru
Organic Farming & Agroforestry
In the tropics, agriculture is generally practiced using lots of inorganic inputs—synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. While this often boosts production, at least initially, over time heavy chemical applications damage soils, promote pest resistance, and eventually lead to declining harvests, all while polluting the environment. Through careful planning, however, crop yields can be improved without the negative effects of chemical inputs, promoting the long-term sustainability of agricultural practices. Organic farming methods include the use of organic compost and biochar, reduced tillage, intercropping to promote natural enemies of pests, and structural complexity to reduce the incidence of pests and plant disease. An added benefit of organic farming is that organic agricultural products receive higher prices, especially in international markets, boosting the incomes of local farmers without damaging the environment.
Crops grown organically at Finca Las Piedras (or planned) include cacao, pineapple, a variety of citrus, banana, avocado, papaya, tomatoes, cassava, sugarcane, coffee, watermelon, and a diverse variety of other fruit and vegetable species.
Cacao Agroforestry (Theobroma cacao)
Cacao (Theobroma cacao), from which chocolate is made, is native to the Amazon rainforest. As many varieties require shade to grow best, it can be grown as part of an ‘agroforestry’ system, in which cacao is grown alongside trees and other plants that provide shade. Cacao agroforestry systems provide a number of benefits as compared to monocultures of other crops: the cacao forest canopy and the litter fall that it produces conserves and even improves the soil, and shade plants provide benefits ranging from increased complexity and thus higher value to biodiversity, nitrogen fixation (e.g., Inga spp.), and long-term economic benefits to farmers (e.g., via timber trees).
We are developing a series of experimental plots to test different organic growing practices to maximize yields using a native variety of cacao known locally as 'chuncho.' Our goal is to promote cacao agroforestry in already cleared and abandoned land along the Interoceanic Highway in southeastern Peru, simultaneously improving local livelihoods and boosting the biodiversity value of agricultural lands, without promoting new deforestation.
Organic Compost and Biochar
Tropical soils are notoriously poor—being exposed to intense sun and leached by constant rains, they are not capable of retaining nutrients and thus are relatively infertile. However, with good management, tropical soils can be improved, reducing or eliminating the need for inputs such as synthetic fertilizers. Composting is a simple way to produce nutrient-rich organic material that can be incorporated into poor tropical soils, a cheap, effective, organic fertilizer.
Biochar is burned organic material—dead wood from fallen trees, for instance—that is incorporated into the soil to provide nutrients for crops. Biochar was used extensively by indigenous Amazonian peoples as a key part of sustainable swidden or slash-and-burn agriculture.
Copoazu (Theobroma grandiflorum) is an important Amazonian crop that is native to the Madre de Dios region in Peru. Here, seedlings germinate in a shadehouse at Finca Las Piedras. Photo: Geoff Gallice
ASA interns translocate saplings for planting in the ASA's experimental plots at Finca Las Piedras. Photo: Geoff Gallice
Biochar was used by pre-Colombian Amazonian people to convert poor, tropical soils into productive farmland. We are experimenting with biochar and other organic fertilizers in the ASA's experimental plots at Finca Las Piedras. Photo: Geoff Gallice
Native Food Forest
Many of the estimated 30,000 or so native Amazonian plant species have important local uses as food, building material, or medicine – many have been used by indigenous Amazonian societies for hundreds or even thousands of years. Traditional uses range from a variety of medicinal application to food and fiber. An entire house can even be constructed using the woody centers and leaves of just two palm species!
We are working to convert a large, abandoned agricultural field at our site in Peru into a forest composed mostly of species that produce things of value – not only to us, but to the other animal species that call the rain forest home. Native plants that we will incorporate into our food forest include a variety of palms that produce fruits, building, and thatch material for roofs, timber trees, ‘shiringa’ (rubber), and numerous fruit trees, including a wild variety of cacao, among many others.
Aerial view of the 1.5 ha native food forest at Finca Las Piedras, recently planted with several local and regional species. Photo: Geoff Gallice
Aerial view of the 1.5 ha native food forest at Finca Las Piedras, recently planted with several local and regional species. Photo: Geoff Gallice
Education & Community Engagement
The conservation challenges facing the southern Peruvian Amazon are human problems—they're caused by people, affect people, and can only be solved by people. We're working in Madre de Dios to teach people about the importance of the natural environment and its benefits to our communities, and to promote solutions that benefit both people and the natural resources we depend on to live happy, healthy, and sustainable lives.
Environmental Education Program
We are working to create awareness of environmental issues and foster an environmentally-conscious society in the southern Peruvian Amazon. Our environmental education projects focus mostly on elementary and high school children in Madre de Dios.
Our internship program is designed to educate and prepare the next generation of biologists, conservationists, and responsible global citizens to solve the world's diverse environmental challenges.
The ASA promotes service learning visits to Finca Las Piedras, where visitors—mostly college students from Peru and abroad—help us work towards our mission while gaining skills that they can use to solve environmental issues in their own communities.
Volunteers help the ASA achieve its research and conservation objectives while gaining a unique experience in the Amazon rainforest.
Education & Community Engagement Projects in Peru
Environmental Education Program
Our first photography exhibit, 'La Fascinante Vida de los Insectos,' (English: 'The Fascinating Life of Insects'), which is directed towards children in Madre de Dios, is being shown in Puerto Maldonado and our field site, Finca Las Piedras. The goal of this expedition is to expose our community's youth to the amazing diversity of life that's in their own backyard. The first step in building a healthy relationship with the environment in the Amazon is fostering an appreciation for nature and an understanding of the other plants and animals that share the Amazon rainforest with us.
Stay tuned for future photographic exhibits and educational projects involving our local kids.
ASA Research Assistant in Lepidoptera, Quin Baine, explains the role of camouflage in insect defense during the inauguration of 'La Fascinante Vida de los Insectos' in Puerto Maldonado, Peru. Photo: Geoff Gallice
Our internship program is designed to educate and prepare the next generation of biologists, conservationists, and responsible global citizens to solve the world's diverse environmental challenges, both here in the Amazon and beyond. Interns learn through hands-on engagement in the ASA's diverse projects spanning biological research and monitoring, sustainable tropical agriculture, and education and community engagement.
Click here to learn more about our internships in Madre de Dios, Peru!
ASA Academic Programs Coordinator, Erik Iverson, leads interns through an 'aguajal,' a palm swamp dominated by Mauritia palms and home to unique plants and animals in the southern Peruvian Amazon. Photo: Geoff Gallice