Jun 15

Travel note 5 | EMS communications survey | Zelinsky tribute in Annals



And so then it was eventually off to the airport, for good-byes to the Andes, to the rainforest, to Peru, to each other. Read the final installment of Peru Travel notes below.



Todd Bacastow was the commencement speaker at the U.S. Army
Sergeants Major Academy graduation on Monday, June 8. See related story: Army selects Penn State as partner for new educational fellowship program

Azita Ranjbar is traveling to South Africa to participate in Antipode’s 5th Institute for the Geographies of Justice.

Elizabeth (Libby) Wentz (Ph.D. ’97) has been appointed dean of social sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University.


Please give us your input: Communications survey
The College of Earth and Mineral Sciences (EMS) is conducting a survey to inform our communications strategy. We need your input and insights. Please take a few minutes to complete this short survey: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/EMScommunications.

Why are we conducting this survey? Communications play an important role in conveying the essence and value of an organization. EMS has begun a comprehensive effort to refresh our communications strategy. This strategic communications Initiative will include an examination of current communications materials and messaging across all platforms, provide multiple avenues for stakeholder input, and identify opportunities for greater effectiveness and consistency in our communications. This survey will help inform that process.

Geography APG holds networking event
The Department of Geography Affiliate Program Group (APG) held a networking event and organizational meeting at The Penn Stater Conference Center on June 15, 2015, in conjunction with the Pennsylvania GIS Conference.

Zelinsky tribute published in the Annals
Wilbur Zelinsky was a prodigious scholar of immense influence on the discipline of geography. He was guided as geographers have always been guided: to explore the unknown, something he did in his own unique and exuberant way. He died quietly on May 4, 2013, in his ninety-second year, after practicing geography passionately for seven decades, starting as a map draftsman during World War II and writing books right up until his death. Not only was he intellectually gifted, Wilbur was also a fine musician and a person who cared deeply about relationships, literature, the arts, and social justice. He was colorful, quirky, romantic, genuine—salt of the earth, without pretense—and pretty funny, too.

Travel Note 5: Frontier towns, impacts, and good-byes
We said our good-byes to the rainforest after our last sampling event and a sunset trip to the canopy tower. The sampling was done after watching the harpy eagle chick, and occurred in a new wetland type for me, a sartenjales. It was basically the tropical version of a headwater stream; small channels lazily looping here and there, sitting on top of a layer of clay, dominated by a sub canopy palm (Bactris riparia) whose fronds reach only to eight or ten feet, with four-inch black, sharp spines along the trunk. A mini palm swamp, thick with vines and ground-level ferns, it was steamy and warm, and provided a great bookend to the wetland field work that the class had done, since they began in the high altitude peat bogs two weeks before. They ended up sampling three wetland types: the bofedales, the palm swamp, and the small stream area. They have gotten very competent at the methane samplings, as well as cheerily trying to get multiple sediment cores in unforgiving environments. The sediment-coring device consists of a long plexiglass tube to which you attached a rather substantial head with a handle and a water evacuation valve. The root density alone is enough to discourage mere mortals from pursuing cores, but at this site the clay provides a second challenge—the tube sticks and groans and refuses to budge. This is when you recruit the two largest students to each hang on one end of the handle, and watch them jump up while spinning and try to drill the coring tube further (it’s generally entertaining and effective). After multiple muddy attempts, they succeed.

A trip up a canopy tower is a journey to an extraordinary world, and when it happens at sunset it takes on another dimension. A rainforest is generally organized by human eyes into six layers:  the ground layer (lower than one foot), herbaceous layer (three feet), immature layer (ten feet), understory, or lower canopy (30 feet), upper canopy (60–100 feet), and emergent (130–240 feet). The canopy tower is a series of stacked stair sections, about five feet by five feet square, bolted together, one on top of the other, until it reaches approximately 100–120 feet. The whole thing tends to wobble a bit nervously as you ascend, allowing you to take your time and observe the passing layers of the forest (or that’s what you generally tell yourself). Once you reach the top, you pop up through a door in the platform and generally catch your breath because you suddenly feel as if you know what it is like to fly above the dense, 100-foot high carpet of the canopy. The air is surprisingly dry, far different than the humidity of the forest floor, and you are almost giddy with the light (less than one percent of light reaches the forest floor; 75 percent is captured by the upper canopy). The emergent trees (e.g., Brazil nut, ironwood, kapok) pop out of the top of the canopy like the heads of the tallest kids in your grade-school class, and they can be surprisingly covered in blooms that were invisible from the forest floor; the only clue might have been a few withered flowers on the trail far below. The kapoks are in bloom now, so imagine looking into the large, umbrella shaped top that emerges from the carpet of green, densely covered in large pink blooms; you can also pick out the bowling ball-sized bolles (these each hold 12–15 nuts and shells) along the branches of the Brazil nut trees.They really are two worlds; the biological churning below, where the heat and humidity reinforces the tight recycling of nutrients in the famously poor soil (dead vegetation decomposes extremely quickly, and the nutrients are taken up almost immediately by the shallow roots of the trees), and the light and dry open space above the never-ending canopy, interrupted only by the wide and brown meandering band of the river. Parrots can dot the treetops (I saw yellow-crowned ones), the macaws fly in loud and raucous pairs, toucans flit here and there (yes, there are plenty of brown and gray birds, too, but they don’t inspire many adjectives).

There were lots of photos in the dying light, then we hurried down the stairs and back on the trail to the lights of the lodge. The last morning in the rainforest is one that I try to pay special attention to. As the light just begins and the shapes of the forest begin to be discerned (remember that one wall of your room is open to the forest) you can generally hear the howler monkeys establishing territories; they are totally unforgettable, since their calls sound like a hurricane wind in the distance, a powerful, deep-toned, long whoosh. You can hear them up to six miles away, so imagine the decibel level when they are close. Next come the dusky titi monkeys, which are comfortable being in the trees right outside of your room; their calls are similar to the monkey impressions that you did as a child, tittering and chattering and chasing one another through the trees. There were three troops this morning, calling and yabbering to one another at various points around the lodge complex. Finally it is time to crawl out from under your mosquito net one last time, pad across the hardwood floor to your bathroom, and sometimes you get to greet a small rodent who is trying to get into your suitcase. It’s quite a bittersweet moment.

We headed off to Puerto Maldonado, a literal frontier town (locals actually call it “Wild West”) and the closest thing to understanding the American gold rush that I will ever encounter. When Rick and I first came here in 2003, it had no paved road, the center of town was a sleepy and ragged square, only ferries could get you from one side of the Madre de Dios to the other, and the center of activity was a relatively small market where you could find fruits and vegetables, medicinal plants from the rainforest, and the evidence of a resourcefulness that I lacked (e.g., sandals made of recycled tires, booths where shoes were re-soled). Once the InterOceanic Highway arrived, the city began to grow at a dizzying rate (estimates are that the current population is around 75,000, more than double what it was three years ago), but it remains raw and ragged, relative to other cities in Peru. To stand on the street corner across from the market now is to witness a hundred motos (either a motor scooter, motorcycle, or a three-wheeled motorcycle rickshaw taxi) buzzing and tooting down the mayhem of mud streets (the taxis are recognized by their yellow-vested drivers),  schoolchildren in their uniforms on their way to school, via foot and motor scooter (my personal best observation was a motor scooter with a father and three sons), dogs everywhere, the market now exploded into a maze of booths covering an entire block, where miners stock up on dried llama meat, rubber boots, and T-shirts. A replica of the Golden Gate bridge, painted bright orange, connects one bank to the other (completed in March 2012) and lines of gold shops sport balances in glass cases for weighing the treasure of the river. Puerto Maldonado has seen booms related to a series of resource extractions:  rubber, then logging, then gold mining. The 450 percent increase in the price of gold over the last 10 years, coupled with the TransOceanic Highway, have conspired to turn boom into explosion, but not all boats seem to be floating higher. Much of the wealth of Puerto Maldonado is reported to come from illicit sources (i.e., illegal gold mining and logging); it is easy to imagine that there is tremendous money-laundering going on between gold, timber, and cocaine. But the other side of Puerto Maldonado is its position as the gateway to the rainforest, because it is here where the Madre de Dios and the Tambopata meet, and you begin your travels to the research stations and ecolodges that dot both rivers. We bookend our travels to the rainforest here, and stay in a comfortable hotel named Cabana Quinta. We spent one day participating in a wonderful project that teaches schoolchildren to assess stream health, developed by a partnership between Stroud Water Center and Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research. It’s called the Leaf Pack Project, and has children place packs of leaves in mesh bags and anchor them in local streams. The kids then retrieve the bags about 4 weeks later, pick out the bugs, identify them, and calculate a stream health index. I’m just happy that our students performed relatively well, and we managed to have one non-science major fall in love with entymology after seeing a stonefly case under a microscope. Magnification is magic!

And then we came to the last two days in Lima, finalizing the class project (carbon neutral travel options for ecotourists) and getting ready to present our findings to the co-owner of Rainforest Expeditions, the large tourism company that runs the series of ecolodges in which we stayed on the Tambopata River. As all such group ventures go, the final 24 hours was something to behold, as somewhat bleary-eyed students straggled into breakfast after a long night of number-crunching and slide preparation. Here are some insights gained:
• Our inventory of our trip yielded a carbon expenditure of approximately 1.5-2.0 tons of CO2 per person over a 3.5 week period. The average American has a carbon footprint of 14 tons of CO2 per year, the average European has one of 11 tons CO2 per year. The recommendation for a sustainable lifestyle is 2 tons of CO2 per year, posing a challenge for the rest of my year. I suggest going to www.footprintnetwork.org, you can calculate your own and form a plan for reducing it.
• 24 percent of ecolodge guests were extremely concerned about their footprint, according to the survey that the students designed and administered.
The student’s own experience yielded a number of specific recommendations for Rainforest Expeditions concerning opportunities for increased awareness and offset options such as reforestation projects.

The presentation was well received, and Kurt Holle taught us much about the tourism business (it’s all about the details, and the largest impact of eco-tourism is the protection of habitat). We couldn’t have chosen a better client and project. And so then it was eventually off to the airport, for good-byes to the Andes, to the rainforest, to Peru, to each other. It will take months for Joe and me to process what we learned from the students, and it will take them days, months, and even years to process what Peru taught them. I hope that they will sometimes imagine the howler monkeys at dawn, the feel of the forest, the clarity of the Andes, the complexity and inter-relatedness of the issues, the taste of the potatoes, the din of the market and Puerto Maldomado, the intercultural nature of the country. But we have missed peanut butter, brewed coffee, hamburgers, the sound of English, our family and friends. We will see you soon.

Recently (or soon to be) published

DeBerry, D. A., S. J. Chamberlain, and J. W. Matthews. 2015. Trends in Floristic Quality Assessment for wetland evaluation. Wetland Science and Practice 32:12-22.
Over the past two decades, much has been written about the use of bioassessment tools to evaluate wetland condition. Interest in bioassessment has originated from a need to establish parameters for “biological integrity” in wetland ecosystems, whether for scientific research, natural areas assessment, inventory and monitoring, or in response to regulatory mandate. On the latter point, the need has been, in part, a reaction to Clean Water Act directives to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters” (33 U.S.C. §1251). For wetland scientists and managers, identifying a sampling focus for chemical or physical integrity (e.g., dissolved oxygen, temperature) has been a much more straightforward task than finding adequate methods for measuring biological integrity, an ambiguous concept that defies precise definition (Cronk and Fennessy 2001). This puts scientists and managers in the difficult position of attempting to express a qualitative construct (biological integrity)in measurable or quantitative terms.

Barrett A. Lee, Stephen A. Matthews, John Iceland, and Glenn Firebaugh. “Residential Inequality: Orientation and Overview” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science July 2015 660: 8-16, doi:10.1177/0002716215579832
Where people live reflects and affects their position in society. This tenet is implicit in the American Dream, which promises access to desirable homes, neighborhoods, and communities for those willing to work hard enough. As recent events remind us, however, effort alone does not guarantee fulfillment of the dream. Natural disaster, recession, mortgage foreclosure, and escalating (and plummeting) housing prices are among the forces that have already thwarted residential aspirations in the United States during the new century. The difficulty that many immigrants to the nation face in achieving their housing and neighborhood goals is another current concern. Over a longer period, the discriminatory practices of real estate agents and lenders, preferences for neighbors similar to oneself, marked income inequality, and government policies and programs have perpetuated spatial divides by race and class.

Jun 15

Travel note 4: Tired, ragged, and a harpy eagle chick just when we needed it

Tambopata Parrots Field Guide

A student reviews the field guide to parrots on the Tambopata River.

We have spent the last four days at two ecolodges on the Tambopata River, Posadas Amazonas and Refugio Amazonas. This part of the class intends to do three things: provide a continuation of our rainforest experience; give us opportunities to sample yet another wetland type; and provide us with two more striking models of ecotourism. The research station (Los Amigos) that was the start of the rainforest experience was on the Madre de Dios River, which oddly enough had the tension of illegal gold mining adjacent to an extremely large tract of forest and Manu National Park. The Tambopata River, by contrast, has little gold mining, and but has felt more of the impact of increasing pressure from Puerto Maldonado, and also is home to a series of ecotourism lodges.

The Tambopata is best known, however, for the world’s largest avian (bird) clay lick, by virtue of size, number of birds, and diversity of species, which is on the property of the Tambopata Research Center (TRC). This area is the center of geophagy (ingestion of clay by a large number of birds as well as some mammals), with approximately 300 documented clay licks (termed collpas, meaning salty earth in the native language) in the region. The clay-lick story is fascinating, since it is really where geology and biology meet. The area contains a very specific strata that is exposed along riverbanks, and the birds very obviously target it when eating the clay; the clay-lick behavior is observed in the Western Amazon, New Guinea, Africa, and North America. This reasons for ingesting clay and visiting the collpa are numerous, including grit to aid in gut processing, mineral supplementation (primarily sodium), binding the dietary toxins (especially important when you ingest large quantities of seeds, nuts, and unripe fruits), adding additional protection to the gut lining (both the clay itself and the accompanying production of mucus), and for social interaction. For the parrots of Tambopata, the binding of dietary toxins appears to be the primary reason, but when you have a chance to visit a collpa that is active, the social interaction is the most striking.

If you are lucky, the early morning begins with the arrival of the small parrots (our experience was the yellow-crowned and blue-headed parrots, my favorites) and parakeets, then come the large macaws. On a good day, the cacophony of macaws and parrots is astounding, and the vision of hundreds of parrots coloring the side of the clay lick in brilliant azure blue, yellow, and green is almost psychedelic. The large macaws, often flying in pairs (they are famously monogamous), with their loud squawking calls and long tails, just puts the whole experience over the top in terms of sight and sound. When a predator is detected (most commonly a hawk or eagle), the alarm goes up, and the sky can fill with flocks winging off in all directions, loudly announcing the threat and settling in the surrounding treetops. There are moments of assessment and decisions, and sometimes the birds turn, and sometimes they decide that the risk is too high and they depart. The opportunity to see all of these birds concentrated in one place simply amazes you, and they are such an icon of the rainforest that the vision of so many remains with you as an example of the world’s wonder and beauty.

The ecolodges that we visit have a distinctive style, and that can present both opportunity and challenge. They are composed of a series of large, high-roofed, long buildings, with open roofs that are thatched and gorgeous wide-planked mahogany-like floors. One building generally houses a large, open, common dining room and gathering space/lobby, often with hammocks and garden furniture type couches and chairs. The bar, serving fruity drinks, pisco sours, and Latin American cokes (made with real cane sugar instead of corn syrup) is a staple. Long, open deck walkways lead to numerous buildings housing the guest rooms; about eight guest rooms will be housed in one building, and the walls will only extend up to about eight feet, with the roof open. The most striking thing about the room is that it is open to the rainforest on one side, with just a railing separating you from your view of the forest. The eight-foot walls have mirrored niches for the oil lamps, which are becoming increasingly electrified; hot water for showers appeared last year. This arrangement presents the opportunity to wake up from a nap and notice that two dusky titi monkeys are watching you; the challenge is that there is virtually no privacy (a fact that became especially apparent when the couple in the next room became ill, and we conversed about the importance of Gatorade as if we were occupying the same set of bunk beds). One of the lodges that we stay at, Posada Amazonas, is a unique partnership between a travel company (Rainforest Expeditions) and a native community of Ese Eje people named Infierno. The business arrangement is fascinating, primarily structured via a 20-year agreement established in 1996. The agreement called for a gradual transition of all lodge operations to the native community, and while much progress has been made, the transition is not yet complete. The agreement stipulated 50/50 decision-making, and a 60/40 split of profits (in favor of the native community). The social and cultural implications of this project are fascinating and diverse, ranging from a revived sense of identity, language, and culture, to the need to establish new community processes for decision-making and investment that were never needed previously. The very best ecolodges take their role in habitat protection very seriously. As always, the tension between number of guests and the preservation of the wildlife that they are there to see is ever-present.

The toll of being far from home, with precious little familiarity, begins to show up about now. The challenges that the students face run the gamut of physical (altitude sickness, Montezuma’s revenge), mental (lack of privacy, no touchstones of familiarity), and emotional (being with a group that you didn’t choose, lack of solitude), and things begin to unravel a bit. The lack of privacy and solitude is perhaps the largest challenge right now, coupled with a somewhat grueling schedule; we have strings of days where a wake up call occurs at 4:00 or 4:30 a.m., embedded in a nine-day sequence where breakfast has to be eaten before 7:00 a.m. There is no place to let off steam as a group of energetic students, no privacy to have even a conversation to let off the inevitable venting that one needs to do. And so there were little altercations, but they were maturely resolved one-on-one, and we did some team-building exercises to make our transition to a “performing” group a bit smoother. These might be some of the biggest lessons. And then we saw the harpy eagle …

The harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja) is legendary, although few people have seen one in the wild. It is a large bird of prey (second only to an Andean condor in size), its wingspan can reach over six feet across, its legs can be as thick as a small child’s wrist, and its curved, back talons are larger than grizzly bear claws at five inches. Its distinctive feature is the feathers atop its head that fan into a bold crest when the bird feels threatened. For nesting, harpies favor kapok or ironwood trees and usually build nests 90 to 140 feet above the ground; they like to use trees with widely spaced branches for a clear flight path to and from the nest. And that’s exactly what the nest looked like: four feet thick and five feet across, large enough for a student or two. We walked quietly through the forest (it was the morning after the slight altercations mentioned above, so perhaps it was a bit of “the morning after” thrown in), and literally tiptoed to a vantage spot with the nest in full view. In the middle of it, up popped the harpie chick, almost full size, looking like a Muppet character with its head feathers unceremoniously blowing about. Its beak, however, indicates its expertise. It spends much of the day alone in the nest, while both male and female parents are off hunting for the large quantities of food that the chick must surely require; I had visions of trying to feed Tom during the teenage years. We watched it feed on some unfortunate large mammal; it would feed, and nap, and then just look about, much like life with an eight-month-old. It was mesmerizing, all of it: the large, structural nest in the vee of the tree, the chick and its face snapping here and there, the large ironwood tree (an emergent tree in the rainforest, approximately 150 feet tall), the quiet of the forest pierced every once in a while by the call of the male or female harpie far away.

The chick will hopefully grow into the efficient and powerful predator that it is intended to be. You will never see a harpy eagle soaring over the top of a rain forest; instead it will fly below the forest canopy at speeds up to 50 mph and use its talons to snatch up monkeys and sloths that can weigh up to 17 pounds (one such unfortunate creature was in the nest for the chick’s breakfast). It can fly straight up as well as down, and can turn its head upside down, as well. It has excellent vision, and can see something less than one inch in size from almost 220 yards away. Impressive isn’t it?  Also makes you wonder how on earth they measure that.

A harpy eagle chick, just in time.

Jun 15

Travel note 3 | Saving seabirds | APG Networking event


Hotel Señorial

The GEOG 493: Sustainability Issues Across the Americas course participants with leaders Denice Wardrop and Joe Bishop, and Karl Zimmerer after his meeting and guest lecture to the course on May 15, 2015, at the facilities of the Hotel Señorial in Lima, Peru.



Geography Alumni Program Group Reception at The Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel
The Geography Alumni Program Group will meet on Monday, June 15, 2015 from 4:30-6:30 p.m. EDT. We invite alumni of all Penn State geography programs …

Travel Note 3 – Jaguars, bot flies, rain, and gold mining
The final 24 hours at Los Amigos is worth reporting on, since it was full of the adrenaline rushes and challenges of a field station on the Madre de Dios. It all started innocently enough, with field sampling in a palm swamp that is defined by the particular species of palm, Mauritius flexuosa, locally known as “aguaje.” It is a magnificent tree, bearing fruits that are highly prized by us for their plant estrogens and vitamin D content, and by blue and gold macaws as nesting sites. This particular palm swamp is a bit more famous after the rather ridiculous Discovery Channel program where a man in a special suit tries to get himself swallowed by an anaconda. While a 20-foot anaconda does indeed live in this palm swamp, they couldn’t manage to convince it to eat the guy in the suit, and they couldn’t quite persuade the “actor” anaconda to do the same. So much for reality TV. We never saw the anaconda, but successfully did our methane emissions work, and pulled a lovely sediment core for analysis of carbon accretion. We were back in time for lunch, a short siesta, and an afternoon of class work and sample processing. It was good to be rested, for the evening was full.
A woman named Dara Andrews is here from Ohio State, working on predator-prey interactions and, more specifically, the alarm calls of bare-faced saki monkeys to cats, boa constrictors, and harpy eagles. A saki monkey is a curious site: rather large, completely fluffy, with a long and bushy tail; we were lucky enough to see them on our hike yesterday (it is hard to imagine why so much fur would be advantageous in the rainforest, they looked like small Eskimos in the treetops). While the monkeys are certainly charismatic, it is the feline predators that take the spotlight. Los Amigos is home to five species of cats: the large jaguars and pumas, and the smaller ocelots, jacarandas, and margays. It can also boast of some of the highest recorded densities of jaguars, as well as the other four cats; Dara has ten camera traps positioned around the trail system of Los Amigos, and over a 45-day period recorded 56 separate interactions of cats with cameras. A great short video montage of some of the footage can be found  here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1P0eaZRUtC8&sns=em or if you google on: “Beneath the Canopy:  A Camera Trap Survey in the Peruvian Amazon.” I’d encourage you to check it out, it’s simply wonderful to watch these magnificent creatures exhibit the very same behaviors as Lispeth at home, on a much larger scale. It is also incredibly heartening to know that they thrive in this large patch of forest, although the knowledge that they are often caught on camera close to the station, or around our cabins, is a bit disconcerting to notions of midnight trips to the Dining Hall for cookies. A previous class of ours had installed camera traps at Los Amigos, and Joe and I were rewarded with magnificent photos of the same cats, as well as a short-eared dog.
But the evening was just getting started. Bot flies (Dermatobia hominis) are not unknown to folks who spend lots of time in the rainforest, although I will tell you that neither Joe, myself, or any student has ever had the experience. But a charming young grad student from Michigan State, Sean Williams, has had the dubious honor of more than a few, probably because of the co-occurrence of his field area with a well-known bot fly heaven of sorts. Bot flies have an ingenious method of getting to their preferred hosts, which are warm and dexterous mammals like ourselves. Lacking a method of attaching themselves directly (owing to our ability to perceive them and brush them off), they’ve devised an admirably sneaky and indirect approach: an egg-laden female turns a female mosquito on her back, attaches her eggs to the underbelly of said mosquito, gently lets her go, and the eggs fly with the mosquito as she lands gently on you in the tropics. The heat of your body causes the eggs to hatch, and the young botfly arrives rather unceremoniously on its human host. They burrow in, and your knowledge of them only begins when a mosquito bite turns into a large, raised bump. One visually interesting treatment consists of strapping a piece of bacon onto the site of the bot fly (although the pragmatism of this treatment depends upon where the botfly is), and it is supposedly effective, since the bot fly will move into the bacon, trying not to suffocate, and then botfly and bacon can be discarded. However, the preferred one amongst researchers is to wait until the bot fly site becomes enlarged and ripe for squeezing it out (waiting for this opportune moment poses no risk, since the botfly saturates its home with an antibiotic to keep its food fresh). Due to the lack of video and Xboxes, this becomes somewhat of an entertainment event, and so the class willingly participated in the extraction. While Sean exposed his shoulder, another researcher named Gideon squeezed the welt, the bot fly poked its little snorkel-like breathing spiracle out, and our very own Dara manned the tweezers and pulled slowly; a steady hand is necessary since the botfly has two little hook-like apertures on the back end. The whole thing was rather anticlimactic, since the bot fly turned out to be a very unimpressive 7mm. In this instance, size didn’t seem to matter, since a jolly time was had by all.
Gideon (the bot fly assistant surgeon) teaches a great field methods course here with his wife Minny, and he gave us a short talk on the course and his reasons for creating it. Field method courses are rare, and his is a fantastic one: three weeks covering a range of methods for a large number of taxonomic groups (e.g., primates, mammals, birds, insects). In addition, they utilize the funds to support ongoing research, a great model that seems to benefit all. Gideon and his wife allowed 6 of our students to accompany them while they tracked troops of monkeys on the first day; they are wonderfully generous and committed and well organized, and their field course offering can be found at fieldprojects.org.
We left to pack up, and awoke at 3:00 a.m. to absolutely torrential rain that hasn’t stopped since (while it is officially the end of the rainy season, they apparently don’t call it the rainforest for nothing). It is now 10:00 a.m., we are headed downriver, and we are all living under heavy blue plastic ponchos because if you stick your head out, you will be soaked in an instant. So this is being written under cover in my homey blue plastic tent, while the wind whips by and the world is only as big as the poncho. When I stick my head out I am likely to see gold mining activity on the banks of the Madre de Dios. The presence of a reserve like Los Amigos in the midst of a heavily mined area is an articulation of the tension between livelihoods, demand for gold, and environment. Gold is found not only in jewelry, it is but also in all of our electronic devices, and so we are all a part of the supply chain; demand is highest in India, followed by the U.S.

Most of the rural land in Peru is owned by the government, and concessions are ceded to applicants for one of six activities: conservation (Los Amigos was the first of these in the country, holding over 150,000 acres), gold mining, agriculture, ecotourism, and logging. A concession holds for five years, and you must demonstrate to the government that you are utilizing the land for the purpose of the concession, i.e., if you hold a mining concession, you must actively mine it. Los Amigos actually holds a mining concession on the river, for the purposes of at least knowing that the mining that is done there is performed in a responsible way. The station utilizes the small amount of profit that it makes from usage fees to hire a guard to ensure that illegal mining does not occur upriver on the Madre de Dios (any mining would be illegal since there are no concessions available). And so, in addition to the production of knowledge, the station contributes much to the preservation of a magnificent piece of forest. The intact piece of forest in this area is equivalent to being able to walk from Boston to Chicago without a break in the tree cover. Something wonderful to ponder, and we are so thankful to experience it and much of what it allows to be.

Penn State mapping tool could help save seabirds
Spotting a scarlet tanager perched delicately on a nearby branch, David Wiedenfeld peers through his binoculars to get a closer look at the small bird’s ruby plumes. Wiedenfeld, a long-time birder, often stops at a favorite wooded area near his home just west of Washington D.C. for an early-morning songbird sighting. He also appreciates the beauty of the seabirds he observes just a few dozen miles down the road at the Chesapeake Bay.

Fracking book chosen for program
The 2015-16 Penn State Reads common book, which is being given to all incoming freshmen this summer, is The Boom: How Fracking Ignited the American Energy Revolution and Changed the World published in 2014 and written by Russell Gold

A set of resources is being compiled by the Penn State Reads steering committee that will be added to the Penn State Reads web site to supplement the book.  If you have any resources to share, then please provide them to Linda Spangler, who will forward them on to the steering committee.

Is Pittsburgh’s Bad Air Putting Cyclists at Risk?
It’s pretty much taken for granted that riding a bike is good for you. Studies have shown that biking not only benefits your physical health,  it’s good for your mental health too. But cycling also carries some potential health risks—and not just the ones that come from a car door opening into your bike lane or riding without a helmet. Air pollution can also be a big problem for cyclists when they share the road with motorists.


The previous dog was Lucy, a 3-month-old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and part of Rachel Passmore’s (B.S. ’14) family. Send a photo of your dog to geography@psu.edu for our mystery dog of the week!

Jun 15

Travel note 2 (GEOG 493) Life at a Research Station

Huge tree

Students and faculty stand together at the base of a huge tree.

By Denice Wardrop

We arrived at Los Amigos Biological Station yesterday afternoon, after a 5 hour journey upriver by boat from a Town called Laborinto. Laborinto is a gold mining town; think of Deadwood, move it into the present, give it a South American flair, and put it in on a river. Quite a place, but I’ll describe that some other time; I’ll just say that the public bathroom is an experience not to be missed. The general price for bathroom use in Peru is half of a sole to use it, 1 sole if you want paper (it’s about 3 soles to the dollar). The students have all gained a valuable skill concerning taking care of bodily functions.

Life at a tropical research station is something unique, so I thought that I’d simply describe a day. Life is structured around three things: meals, the time that the generators operate (electricity for charging devices), and wifi use. Meals cannot be missed, since snacks and groceries are basically unobtainable when you are 5 hours upriver by boat from anywhere with even a small store. Your day starts at sunrise, approximately 5:30 a.m., because your cabin is merely a screened-in porch, no windows or curtains to be found. Even with the screening, you sleep under mosquito nets, which still give a magical quality to bedtime since it reminds you of blanket forts when you were a kid. The trip to the bathroom generally involves turning on a light and seeing if anything scurries; most often not, although much is possible. You greet whatever animal roommate you might have (mine is a tiny treefrog that I’ve named Benny, for some completely unknown reason), rinse off your face, and put on the same pair of field pants that you’ve worn for three days straight and maybe a clean shirt. Fortunately, any kind of vanity has been long abandoned by everybody, which is quite refreshing. Breakfast is 6:30 to 7:00 a.m., and field time in the morning in the rainforest is precious (animals are most active, and it’s cool), so everyone here is pretty business-like about fueling up and heading out. Names, times, and destinations are written in chalk on a big blackboard, giving the place an aura of a TV medical drama; people are heading out to track ocelots, follow troops of monkeys, census birds, map habitats. You don long pants and long-sleeved shirts, cover exposed areas in bug spray, and never, ever forget your water. Our morning hike involved 4 hours on a few of the 15 miles of trails that are maintained through the jungle so that researchers can access all parts of the reserve; the sights and sounds are simply overwhelming. For example, there are 200 tree species in all of Pennsylvania, but you will see 200 species of trees in a single half-acre here. You strain your ears, trying to tell bird calls from monkey chatter from sounds of things moving through brush. The sheer lushness and diversity and cacaphony of life can be one of the most moving and intense spiritual experiences ever; 5 kinds of monkeys, 150 ft high Brazil Nut Trees, Ficus trees with buttressed roots that extend 50 meters into the forest, thousands of shades of green, a trail of leafcutter ants crossing the forest floor, hundreds of meters long and all carrying pieces of leaves on their back, giant blue morpho butterflies flitting about, macaws flying overhead, and on and on it goes (and this was truly on our morning hike). And so you arrive back before noon, shower off all of the sweat and bug spray (cold shower, mind you, no hot water here) and hope to make it in time for lunch, which is only served from noon to 1:00 p.m. Since meals are served in the dining hall, it is always a noisy and social place at mealtime. The only starch that is served is generally rice, and since it has been a while since anyone has had bread (no oven, and it would have to be baked from scratch every day), people speak of breadmakers with a reverence generally reserved for priests and their mother’s cooking. What is palpable here is a sense of urgency to everyone’s study. Just a few facts for context: 33 percent of all species on Earth occur in the Amazon; there are 40,000 species of plants alone; there are over 120 species of ants here at the station; 25 percent of prescription medications are derived from Amazon plants (e.g., tamoxifen). Given the richness, the potential for loss of species from habitat destruction (e.g., deforestation, gold mining) alone has been estimated at 20-40 percent; the loss due to climate change could take that number even higher.

So here is an analogy: just as we are learning to read the Book of Life, we are tearing out pages at an alarming rate. And so the people here are trying to learn as much as they can, as fast as they can, trying to stay ahead of the page-tearing. Quite a motivation.

We took a short siesta after lunch, as many do since it is the largest meal of the day; since the animal activity slows down in the heat of the day, most researchers take this time to do the documentation, data dump, and other mundane parts of field work. We held class for a few hours in a large screened in classroom, designing and building the survey questionnaire that the students will use as they interview ecotourists, researchers, lodge/station managers, and community members. The students then headed out for another hike with our guide, Esau, to see as much as they could and to try to gain experience in identifying the 7 plants assigned to each. There is an old Chinese proverb that says, “If you wish to know something, learn it’s name”; being able to at least pick out a few familiars makes the rainforest experience less daunting (even though your “tree” might only occur once every acre or so).

Joe and I checked out our field site for tomorrow, it was getting dark on the way back and we stopped at the top of a new overlook created by an enormous and recent landslide. We were about 100 ft above the river, the sunset was magnificent, and the sounds were the macaws returning to their nests and the slow, easy swish of the wide and brown river as it rounded the bend. There was unusually bright half moon; when we encountered a gap in the forest our moonshadows were clear and distinct. We all arrived back in time for yet another cold shower before dinner (never have multiple cold showers per day been a chosen activity). It is dark by 6:00 p.m., the generators operate from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m., dinner is 6:30 to 7:00 p.m., and so the the Dining Hall is bright and visible and abuzz. Electronic devices are plugged in and charging, people are using the wifi (with no bandwidth it is painfully slow, there is a general rule that you avoid downloading any video) and swapping stories about the days successes and challenges (e.g., the female ocelot eluded her tracker for yet another day, a new bird for the station was observed, the monkey survey yielded the usual data). We have learned from experience that the fastest way to make friends at a remote field station is to bring along Girl Scout cookies, and so we passed out two boxes of Thin Mints and a box of Samoas (the boxes are a bit bruised from the long journey to another hemisphere, but at least we managed to keep the students from opening them). A minor food riot ensued, we have friends for life, mission accomplished. We had an evening class using our new pico projector, evening classes trade off with presentations from a resident researcher. And that’s the magic of a research station; you get immersed in questions and investigations that you couldn’t imagine, while the researchers get to practice communicating their projects.

Everything shuts down by 9:00 p.m.; the generators turn off, the Dining Hall goes dark, everyone heads for the dormitory or cabins. You look up to the sky and something shifts deep inside you, because the very stars are different from the ones that you know and you realize that you are far from home. Even with the moon, the Milky Way shows up as a virtual ribbon across the sky. You don your selected sleeping gear (for me, its tights and a long sleeved shirt to hopefully provide one more deterrence to the odd mosquito that makes it under the net), you tuck in the mosquito net under your mattress along every edge, and are generally fast asleep by 10:00 p.m., with crickets and frogs providing a range of lullabies. Not a bad day.

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