Rainforests teem with life. Most of the biological diversity of the earth is found in these habitats. But they are threatened by human activity: logging, burning, and transformation into pastures are some of the factors that prune the tree of life. We still do not understand how these ecosystems work or what consequences the rapid loss of diversity will bring to the planet and human societies. There is not much time left to find this out because every year, between 1% and 2% of the remaining forests are destroyed and the inhabitant species lost forever.
Some ecosystems are under more pressure than others. Mountain rainforests in the South American Andes are an example because the rising populations of countries such as Peru or Ecuador migrate into these vulnerable habitats. Therefore, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft or the DFG, a sponsor of Next Wave Germany decided to install a research group that investigates a mountain rainforest system in South Ecuador in order to understand the mechanisms that drive it and to find ways to protect the forest. Of course, such a problem cannot be solved by single researchers, but only in an interdisciplinary approach.
The project has been running for 4 years now and currently involves 20 subprojects. We now have a basic understanding of the climate and the vegetation structure and know about the role of bats and hummingbirds as pollinators. We begin to understand the cycling of the minerals in the soil and the hydrology of the area. We have ideas about the natural dynamics caused by landslides and the succession that follows their aftermath. But we are still far from an understanding of the whole system--we only have the first pieces of a great puzzle.
How does one become a scientist who works in the rainforest? I have been interested in butterflies and moths since my childhood. After receiving a degree in biology, I was looking for a Ph.D. position in which I could do ecological research on this insect group and succeeded . Although today the majority of positions and money are primarily found in other areas of biology, it has fortunately been recognized that research on biodiversity is urgently needed. Supervised by Prof. Konrad Fiedler, our project at the University of Bayreuth on the diversity and role of herbivorous insects started in spring of 1999.
What is it like to work in the rainforest? Enthralling and wonderful, but sometimes hard and boring. The field station "Estación Científica San Francisco" was comparatively comfortable with a supply of gas, water, and electricity and within an hour's bus trip to the capital of the province. Despite many little problems in the daily routine, things went quite well when we were in Ecuador. To work in a mountain rainforest means climbing up steep slopes and it means frequent rains--sometimes for hours, sometimes for days. My colleague Dirk Süssenbach and I had to carry heavy equipment with us, sometimes higher than 1,000 meters in elevation gain in order to install our light traps. This is an elegant way to sample insects: switch on the light in the forest and the moths are attracted. We collected several thousand specimens, labeled, froze, and transported them back home for further analysis. There is no way to avoid the killing of a certain number of insects if the species is to be properly documented. One has to keep in mind that this normally does not harm the rich populations--in contrast to the loss of habitat through destruction of the forest.
To work on the diversity of tropical insects is a challenge because the number of individuals and species is so enormously high. I specialized in a single family of moths, the Geometrids. So far, I have determined there to be approximately 1000 species in an elevational gradient. The number collected within a few square kilometers far exceeds the diversity of this group in Europe. There is no neotropical field guide on moths. If I want to determine a Geometrid moth, I would have to compare it with museum specimens in places such as Munich or London. Some species are new to science and should be described--a problem of time and funding.
What does interdisciplinary work mean? Cooperation between projects is most important. The relationship between projects cannot always be balanced since some projects give more than they can receive. For example, the climatic data is important for almost all scientists, but data on the distribution of certain animals might not be as important, or vice versa. Good relationships between the people involved always catalyze the exchange of information and make the work most fruitful. If I find a caterpillar that has probably never been seen or described before, it is crucial to know which plant it feeds upon. A botanist can often help find out at least the plant family. On the other hand, I may be able to say something about the relationship of herbivores to a certain plant of interest. Our goal is to find out which factors might influence the diversity of herbivores in the system. This cannot be achieved without interdisciplinary work.
To work on this research project is a great experience because it offers the possibility of having an insight into one of the most interesting and complex ecosystems in the world as well as into the country with its people and problems. But one has also to consider such microcosmic problems as poisonous snakes, being alone in the forest on slippery paths, or the occurrence of landslides next to the station. And it can be depressing to see how the neighboring forest is destroyed by large fires without sense. In spite of these problems, it is worth working there.