Research: Living the Dream

Thomas Stokely

In the summer of 2017, then-PhD candidate Thomas Stokely realized a lifelong dream of traveling to South America to study indigenous flora and fauna. Follow his adventure through this photo-journal.

Viva Colombia!

About myself and my travel bug:

I am a PhD Candidate from the landlocked state of Missouri. Since I was young, I had the desire to visit, if not work in South America. This was partly due to my blossoming fascination with the natural world and growing concern for global conservation.

Colombia has some of the highest biodiversity in the world, and is now going through some of the greatest land conversions. The country’s civil war had many effects, from slowing the pace of land conversions to keeping researchers, such as myself, from the desire to explore its natural treasures.

Now that the conflict is over, the fate of its many biodiverse regions is uncertain. Most of my ecological knowledge and experience is from the United States. I have a bachelors degree in Environmental Science from Missouri and my master’s and doctoral research has been in the Pacific Northwest, studying the effects of forest management on biodiversity. One major reason for having decided to undergo the doctoral program was the desire to expand my knowledge globally.

In the College of Forestry and the Betts Forest Landscape Ecology Lab, I have had the opportunity to learn from international researchers, which has only peaked my curiosity. A Colombian lab mate of mine, Diego Zarrate, researches the prioritization of conservation areas in Colombia and effects of landscape scale factors on wildlife. As I had been warning him of my desire to conduct research in Colombia, the International Congress forConservation Biology in Cartegena seemed like a good opportunity to become acquainted with Colombia and itsBiodiversity. Little did I know, this trip would only scratch the surface.

There were two major reasons for traveling to and through Colombia, besides the traveling itself! The first being theInternational Congress for Conservation biology in Cartegena, to network and present my research to an international crowd. The second reason was to explore conservation areas and the land-use practices in between, attempting to develop collaboration with Colombian researchers.

Las Amazonas

I traveled solo to Leticia, the southern most corner of country to explore the Amazon region. After exploring the city and meeting local fisherman, I hired an indigenous guide to travel the jungle, a seasonally flooded rainforest. After learning about local plants, forest goods, modern indigenous life and relaxing over lunch with his family, we boated down the Rio Tacana and then up the Amazon River.

I stayed in an eco-hostel outside of Leticia, where I hired another local guide for a night hike through the jungle in an indigenous reserve. This guide was a decedent of the forest and knew its inhabitants intimately, having natural medicinal remedies beyond the scope of modern science.

We woke up at dawn for a birding trip where I saw my first monkeys! We explored the various stages of traditional slash and burn agriculture where I learned much about the life of Amazonian peoples and their relationships with nature.

I learned much about the Traditional Ecological Knowledge of the area and had a crash course in Spanish immersion.

Traditional Slash and Burn

Santa Marta and the Caribbean Region

  • Santa Marta: I met up with Diego and his family in Santa Marta. I immediately “immersed” myself with the Caribbean, in a scuba trip, where I will likely return for scuba certification. In Santa Marta, I had the opportunity to meet many biologists and practice my Spanish ecology terminology.
  • Rio Don Diego: We met up with Dr. Matt Betts and hired a guide to take us up the Rio Don Diego, a rain/snow/glacial-fed river. We explored naturalized stands of Heliconia and then floated down the river to explore riparian bird and plant communities.
  • Tyrona National Park: Diego guided us on a tour of Tyrona National Park, a coastal reserve that contained a multitude of herptofauna, monkeys and birds. We learned about the recovery of lowland forests, post conversion, and observed our first endemicColombian bird.
  • Isla de Salamanca National Park: Although most of the park is closed to the public, park managers took us on a guided tour of the largest mangrove reserve on the Caribbean coast, where we saw (you guessed it, more birds) and documented the various types of mangrove forest stands. There we found a fishing village that had been destroyed by a tidal tsunami while we were in the mangroves, learning first hand the importance of mangrove conservation.
  • Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta birding trip: Having met up with another OSU professor, we took a tour up a 9,000 ft gradient of an ancient volcano system that rises from the Caribbean. My colleagues counted 200 bird species in two days, although I had agut bacteria, so was out of commission for one day.
  • International Congress for Conservation Biology: We traveled to Colombia to present our research at the Society of ConservationBiology International Congress. There, I met many conservation professionals from around the world, developing a friendship and potential collaboration with Colombia Researchers, including ProCAT.

The Colombian Andes and Bogota

After the Conservation Biology Congress, Diego and I traveled to Chingaza National Park with a Colombian graduate student of the University of Arizona and his professor to assist in looking for the Andean Spectacled Bear.

A primary objective of the trip was to establish a dialogue and collaboration with park biologists and researchers to develop a research partnership in the National Park. The national park was Colombia’s first to be established containing a rare high-elevation ecosystems and is the primary source of water for the city of Bogota.

The paramo is a unique high-elevation shrub-dominated ecosystem with a diversity of plant life. After many decades of overgrazing and mining, park managers are attempting to restore degraded plant communities. We discussed ideas for restoration experiments with the lead park biologist. White-tailed deer are thwarting many restoration efforts, providing an opportunity to expand upon my College of Forestry research on the ecological effects of deer herbivory.

Diego and I are continuing the dialogue with park biologists and Colombian researchers to push forward with an experiment which will address issues pertaining to restoration, soil degradation and herbivory by deer.

After Chingaza, we stayed in Bogota and attended the 40th anniversary of the National Parks, where we listened to President Santos and high-level governmental and non-governmental representatives discuss conservation of Colombian natural treasures.

Plantas y Animales

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