Adapting to Change

Why do some tropical birds adapt better than others to changes in climate and land use? The answer will help conservationists protect wildlife as the Earth’s temperatures rise and rainforests give way to livestock production and other agricultural uses.

To gather clues, ecology graduate student Alison Ke spent last summer exploring bird communities and vegetation along remote, rugged terrain in Colombia, home to nearly 2,000 bird species. She learned a lot about bird conservation—planting large trees on grazing land might bolster bird communities, for example. And she discovered an essential truth: International research can be grueling.

In the course of her 10-week travel, Ke bathed in a river with alligators, fell into a swamp, got shocked by an electric fence and shared her tent site with pigs, wasps and chickens who liked to hang out in the tent fly. She learned that mosquitoes can bite through two pair of pants. She drank water so dirty it stung her throat, and she needed a machete to reach some of the 144 sites she navigated in predawn heat.

And she had the time of her life.

“Every day was a new adventure!” exclaimed Ke, a Ph.D. student working with Daniel Karp, an assistant professor in wildlife, fish and conservation biology. “I got to ride on mules and swim in a river with a giant rainbow over my head. I met wonderful people and experienced new cultures. I learned how to tolerate physical and mental discomfort and stay optimistic, which is something I’ll never forget.”

Protecting Biodiversity

The ultimate goal of Ke’s project is to protect biodiversity, or diverse biological species, which the planet depends on for clean air and water, fertile soil, flood control and so much more.

Each of the millions of living things on Earth have evolved to thrive in its own ecological niche with certain temperatures and sources of food. Changes in climate and land use can wipe out habitat or alter it faster than species can migrate or adapt. When a plant, animal or other organism becomes extinct—a condition on the rise—it impacts the entire ecosystem and takes with it a unique genetic code often needed to develop medicines and foods.

Colombia’s Magdalena Valley is an area rich in rainforest and biodiversity that is threatened by major changes in climate and land use. Along with Professor Karp, Ke is studying one of those diverse biological groups—tropical birds—to better understand why some organisms are more vulnerable to extinctio

“Why are some birds unable to persist in agricultural landscapes?” Ke asked. “We’re looking at which traits are shared by species that can and can’t survive so we can reduce the risks birds face from global change.”

The Early Bird Catches the Recordings

From June to August 2018, Ke chronicled birds and vegetation in both agricultural and forested settings in 12 distinct locations in Colombia’s Magdalena Valley, from sprawling cattle ranches to ecotourism lodges to sustenance farms.

Each morning, she awoke in a field or a farmhouse by 4:30 a.m. so she could drive, hike, boat or ride a horse or mule to that day’s test site and arrive before dawn.

“That’s when the birds were most active and the heat and humidity were most manageable,” Ke explained.

From about 6 a.m. to 9 a.m., she would climb mountains and ford streams to record bird sights and sounds at various locales on that day’s site. She usually took a break in the afternoon when temperatures climbed above 94 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity hovered near 95 percent. After about 2:30 p.m., she would return to measure the density of the ground cover, bushes and trees so she could link bird species to the environment they prefer.

Some days, Ke was joined by a fellow scientist. Every day, she was accompanied by a Colombian guide. And every day, she experienced something new. “Whether I was crossing a river on a bamboo raft or eating guavas fresh from the tree, I was exploring places foreigners generally don’t go.”

A Whole New World

Based on preliminary observations, Ke thinks that large, long-lived, non-migratory birds will have the most trouble surviving global change. “If that’s true, then land-use and climate change will likely increase the number of shared species throughout the tropics, homogenizing ecological communities and reducing overall biodiversity.”

This summer, a scientist from Colombia will trek through the region to build on Ke’s research. Meanwhile, Ke will spend the summer in Ecuador, installing nesting boxes in forests and on farms to see how global change affects nesting habits.

Once again, Ke will be off to explore a whole new world.

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