Fieldwork at Black Rock Forest

This past month I have been working at Black Rock Forest, a research and educational forest located in Cornwall, NY. I am interested in the changes in mesofauna, soil-dwelling animals that are about a few millimeters in size, to forest disturbances. If you want to learn more about soil biodiversity and why my project is important, you can watch my video featured in Breaking Bio Blitz in the previous post. This post will focus on my fieldwork and the methods I have been using to collect all the animals living on the soil.

The forest disturbance part of my project was inspired by an on-going long-term experiment at Black Rock Forest. Named the “Future of Oak Forests Study,” this project was initiated in 2008, and includes different tree girdling experiments, with an emphasis on the girdling of red oak trees to simulate an increasingly common scenario where sudden oak death takes over a forest. A smaller portion of this experiment includes herbivore exclosures, where parts of the forest are fenced off in order to prevent feeding by large and medium herbivores which, at Black Rock, are deer. You can read about the experiment here.


Photo: A girdled red oak tree, Black Rock Forest, October 2013

Working in these experimental plots is a unique experience. In certain areas, you are surrounded by girdled trees, which are trees that have been sawed around the trunk at breast height so the trees are still standing but are functionally dead. In herbivore exclosures, the vegetation, light intensity and overall appearance of the forest is very different.

Many studies in this experiment area have obviously focused on the aboveground response of vegetation to the removal and death of oaks and the removal of major herbivores. I am interested in what was going on in the soil and leaf litter. In order to collect mesofauna, which are so small that you can only really see their general form with the naked eye, I had to collect leaf litter at the surface of the forest floor and soils at different depths. I used a soil corer, which is made up to two, very heavy parts: a slam hammer, to drive down into the soil and a metal cylinder, to collect the soil. By placing the metal cylinder upright on top of the soil, after the leaf litter has been removed, I lift the hammer and drive it down into the ground about 10 centimeters, which is sometimes a lot more difficult than one would expect. Once the cylinder was full of soil (and not rocks, which I found to be very problematic in certain areas of the forest), I had to gently extract it from the ground and place the soil into (properly labeled) bags. I took many, many cores in different part of the experimental area for both mesofauna collection as well as soil physical and chemical properties analysis.

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Photos: My Berlese funnel set-up, Black Rock Forest, July 2014

Once I collected all my soils and leaf litter, the mesofauna had to be collected from the different mediums. The outstanding and universally applied method of doing this type of arthropod extraction is a Berlese funnel. The principle of a Berlese funnel is to use both heat and light to drive the animals out of the medium and into vials of ethanol to be collected and sorted later. The leaf litter and soils were placed into large funnels resting below a light bulb, the source of heat and light, with the end of the funnel falling into a vial of ethanol. By letting the soils and leaf litter dry out for three days, I expected to get most of the arthropods and other animals to migrate away from the light bulb and fall into the ethanol. As of right now, all my soils and leaf litter have been “extracted” and I have a bunch of ethanol vials filled with mesofauna and other animals and arthropods to be counted and sorted. I’m hoping to be able to identify the major mesofauna groups (as well as a few subgroups) and determine whether or not the forest disturbances are having a significant effect on these communities.

Though I’m sad that my fieldwork and funnel days are over, I am looking forward to seeing all the litter critters that have been living in the leaf litter and soil under the microscope as I start the next part of my summer research.


-Natalie Bray

Snorkeling in Fiji

Bula everyone! Erin here from Fiji, wanted to post this little GoPro video I put together from one of our field trips over the last week. My advisor, Josh Drew, and I have been teaching a marine conservation course at USP with students from Fiji, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, and Germany, and on Wednesday we went for a snorkel to look for examples of symbiosis on the reef! Check it out to see what we found…so much fun!

Oil Palm Development and Human-Wildlife Conflict in Cameroon

Greetings to my fellow Masters students working hard on summer research and also to all you kind readers interested in our adventures! I am writing from the town of Mundemba in Southwest Cameroon, where I have been based for just a little over a month now for my research on human-wildlife conflict. I had hoped to write earlier, but in just the first week my computer was tragically killed during one of the frequent power surges. Electricity is patchy and internet nearly non-existent. But, alas, I am writing now – here and well and better adjusted to the trials and tribulations of research in Cameroon!

For those of you not familiar, my research is centered on understanding human-wildlife conflict in the form of crop raiding within the context of existing and increasing oil palm development in Cameroon. Oil palm production has gained international attention in recent years due to the extensive deforestation and human displacement caused by plantation expansion in Indonesia. Now, many of the same Southeast Asian companies operating in Indonesia, in addition to new oil palm companies from the U.S. and Brazil, are looking to the forests of West and Central Africa as a new frontier for expansion. There are many reasons why large-scale oil palm production will differ between Indonesia and Africa, way too many to address here. Most significantly, the oil palm tree (Elais guineas) is native to Africa, so palm oil and its by-products hold significant cultural relevance bolstered by a long legacy of smallholder production. I chose to conduct my research in Cameroon, a country where many industrial oil palm concessions are in the works, because I believe the potential impact of these companies on human-wildlife conflict surrounding forested areas needs to be addressed in the African context.

My work here in Cameroon involves visiting four different villages at varying distances from two protected areas – Korup National Park and the Rumpi Hills Forest Reserve – and two oil palm production sites – one a long-standing government-owned oil palm plantation called PAMOL and the second a recent concession acquired by SGSOC (Sithe Global Sustainable Oils Cameroon). Within each village, I spend two weeks interviewing households chosen through systematic random sampling of homes. Each interview involves a set of around 40 questions regarding basic household information, diet (particularly bushmeat consumption), farming, and perspectives on land use change. The section on farming is the most substantial part of the interview. I ask about the different animals that visit the participant’s farm, how frequently, and the extent of damage for each animal. I then schedule a time to visit the farm and take a GPS point so that I can later uncover spatial predictors of crop raiding.

So far, I have completed a pilot study in the village of Meka Ngolo, two weeks in the village of Mundemba II, and am now wrapping up my first week in the village of Ikondo-kondo. Each village has proved to be an enriching experience for my perspective of conservation science in practice, as well as my personal development. I have been received with welcoming arms and in many cases, enthusiasm, because my research indirectly provides an outlet for them to express the daily grievances they face with the animals damaging their farms. As the majority of people in these villages identify as farmers, the damage caused by animals on farms often has significant consequences for household income and subsistence. Thus, it is not surprising that the direct, negative impact of animal raiding behavior on livelihoods often results in lethal action.

As I carry out my research, there have been some really interesting developments. I am not able to describe all of them just yet (without some preliminary analysis!), but one revelation concerns how deeply entrenched human-wildlife conflict is with broader elements of land use and tenure in this region. Both Meka Ngolo and Mundemba II share close boundaries with the Rumpi Hills Forest Reserve and the PAMOL plantation – two vastly different land use types with their own set of restrictions to farming. The village I am currently working in, Ikondo-kondo, was resettled out of Korup National Park fourteen years ago to a new area where crop-raiding by elephants is on the rise. And so, as goes the scientific process, I am working on adjusting my framework to incorporate the critical, changing dynamics of land use.

All in all, I am finding my time here to be incredibly rewarding. The work has certainly not been easy. Interviews often require tricky translation into Cameroonian Pidgin and local dialects. Visiting farms often involves trekking up hills that feel as if they are on a 90 degree incline, crossing wide streams and failing to keep my wellies dry, and trotting through thick farm bush that is known to hold Rhinoceros vipers and pythons. However, at the end of each day I remember that I am very privileged to be here – learning from the rich, bright culture of Cameroon while trying to make a dent in conservation practice through my work!

-Cynthia Malone