OTS Course Blog

It is currently the last official week of my OTS Course, Tropical Biology: An Ecological Approach. During this course I have had the pleasure of sharing adventures with outstanding graduate students and scientists in some of Costa Rica’s most beautiful ecosystems. We are all sharing some our experiences on this blog (my post can be viewed here). Keep an eye out for when I post a link to our Course Book. This book will contain a collection of projects that students have completed individually, or with faculty, at the handful of sites we have visited.

It is hard to pick a favorite site, but Monteverde is in the top three. Judging by the smiles on everyone’s faces below, I think they would agree with me…

Students of OTS' Tropical Biology: An Ecological Approach,  Summer 2015

Students of OTS’ Tropical Biology: An Ecological Approach (Summer 2015), Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, Costa Rica.

An Important Message to College Students

The Huffington Post just published an excellent essay by Keith Parsons about the differences between high school and college. The original article can be found HERE and I have also pasted it below.

Message to My Freshman Students
Keith M. Parsons

For the first time in many years I am teaching a freshman course, Introduction to Philosophy. The experience has been mostly good. I had been told that my freshman students would be apathetic, incurious, inattentive, unresponsive and frequently absent, and that they would exude an insufferable sense of entitlement. I am happy to say that this characterization was not true of most students. Still, some students are often absent, and others, even when present, are distracted or disengaged. Some have had to be cautioned that class is not their social hour and others reminded not to send text messages in class. I have had to tell these students that, unlike high school, they will not be sent to detention if they are found in the hall without a pass, and that they are free to leave if they are not interested. Actually, I doubt that the differences between high school and university have ever been adequately explained to them, so, on the first class day of next term, I will address my new freshmen as follows:

Welcome to higher education! If you want to be successful here you need to know a few things about how this place works. One of the main things you need to know is the difference between the instructors you will have here and those you had before. Let me take a few minutes to explain this to you.

First, I am your professor, not your teacher. There is a difference. Up to now your instruction has been in the hands of teachers, and a teacher’s job is to make sure that you learn. Teachers are evaluated on the basis of learning outcomes, generally as measured by standardized tests. If you don’t learn, then your teacher is blamed. However, things are very different for a university professor. It is no part of my job to make you learn. At university, learning is your job — and yours alone. My job is to lead you to the fountain of knowledge. Whether you drink deeply or only gargle is entirely up to you.

Your teachers were held responsible if you failed, and expected to show that they had tried hard to avoid that dreaded result. I am not held responsible for your failures. On the contrary, I get paid the same whether you get an “F” or an “A.” My dean will not call me in and ask how many conferences I had with your parents about your progress. Indeed, since you are now an adult, providing such information to your parents would be an illegal breach of privacy. Neither will I have to document how often I offered you tutoring or extra credit assignments. I have no obligation whatsoever to make sure that you pass or make any particular grade at all.

Secondly, universities are ancient and tend to do things the old-fashioned way. In high school your education was basically a test-preparation service. Your teachers were not allowed to teach, but were required to focus on preparing you for those all-important standardized tests. Though it galls ideologues, we university professors still enjoy a large degree of academic freedom. That means that the content and format of your courses is still mostly under your professor’s control, and the format will probably include a good bit of lecture, some discussion and little or no test preparation.

Lecture has come under attack recently. “Flipped learning” is the current buzz term among higher-education reformers. We old-fashioned chalk-and-talk professors are told that we need to stop being the “sage on the stage,” but should become the “guide on the side,” helping students develop their problem-solving skills. Lecture, we are told, is an ineffective strategy for reaching today’s young people, whose attention span is measured in nanoseconds. We should not foolishly expect them to listen to us, but instead cater to their conditioned craving for constant stimulation.

Hogwash. You need to learn to listen. The kind of listening you need to learn is not passive absorption, like watching TV; it is critical listening. Critical listening means that you are not just hearing but thinking about what you are hearing. Critical listening questions and evaluates what is being said and seeks key concepts and unifying themes. Your high school curriculum would have served you better had it focused more on developing your listening skills rather than drilling you on test-taking.

Finally, when you go to a university, you are in a sense going to another country, one with a different culture and different values. I have come to realize that the biggest gap between you and me is a cultural difference. I have absorbed deeply the norms and values of an ancient academic culture and they are now a part of me. You, on the other hand, come to my classes fresh from a culture with different values, one that finds academic ways strange and hard to understand.

Take the issue of documentation. For an academic, there is something sacred about a citation. The proper citation of a source is a small tribute to the hard work, diligence, intelligence and integrity of someone dedicated enough to make a contribution to knowledge. For you, citations and bibliographies are pointless hoops to jump through and you often treat these requirements carelessly. Further, our differences on the issue of giving or taking proper credit accounts for the fact that you so seldom take plagiarism as seriously as I do.

If you want to know the biggest difference between you and your professor, it is probably this: You see university as a place where you get a credential. For your professor, a university is not primarily about credentialing. Your professor still harbors the traditional view that universities are about education. If your aim is to get a credential, then for you courses will be obstacles in your path. For your professor, a course is an opportunity for you to make your world richer and yourself stronger.

Patterns and Dynamics in Andean Forests

My colleagues and I in the Andean forest plot network, RED DE BOSQUES, just published a new article on “Large-Scale Patterns of Turnover and Basal Area Change in Andean Forests”.  The article is open access and can be downloaded HERE.

Large-Scale Patterns of Turnover and Basal Area Change in Andean Forests

by Báez S. et al.

ABSTRACT. General patterns of forest dynamics and productivity in the Andes Mountains are poorly characterized. Here we present the first large-scale study of Andean forest dynamics using a set of 63 permanent forest plots assembled over the past two decades. In the North-Central Andes tree turnover (mortality and recruitment) and tree growth declined with increasing elevation and decreasing temperature. In addition, basal area increased in Lower Montane Moist Forests but did not change in Higher Montane Humid Forests. However, at higher elevations the lack of net basal area change and excess of mortality over recruitment suggests negative environmental impacts. In North-Western Argentina, forest dynamics appear to be influenced by land use history in addition to environmental variation. Taken together, our results indicate that combinations of abiotic and biotic factors that vary across elevation gradients are important determinants of tree turnover and productivity in the Andes. More extensive and longer-term monitoring and analyses of forest dynamics in permanent plots will be necessary to understand how demographic processes and woody biomass are responding to changing environmental conditions along elevation gradients through this century.

Fig 1.  Distribution of the 63 permanent forest plots used in this study.

Big problems call for big ecology. Big ecology needs big data.

Big problems call for big ecology. Big ecology needs big data…so starts the newest paper from our group: “Are We Filling the Data Void? An Assessment of the Amount and Extent of Plant Collection Records and Census Data Available for Tropical South America” published open access in PLoS ONE.  The general gist of the paper is that we have lots of data for tropical plants, but we still needs lots and lots more!

Are We Filling the Data Void? An Assessment of the Amount and Extent of Plant Collection Records and Census Data Available for Tropical South America

KJ Feeley
April 30, 2015DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0125629

ABSTRACT: Large-scale studies are needed to increase our understanding of how large-scale conservation threats, such as climate change and deforestation, are impacting diverse tropical ecosystems. These types of studies rely fundamentally on access to extensive and representative datasets (i.e., “big data”). In this study, I asses the availability of plant species occurrence records through the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) and the distribution of networked vegetation census plots in tropical South America. I analyze how the amount of available data has changed through time and the consequent changes in taxonomic, spatial, habitat, and climatic representativeness. I show that there are large and growing amounts of data available for tropical South America. Specifically, there are almost 2,000,000 unique geo-referenced collection records representing more than 50,000 species of plants in tropical South America and over 1,500 census plots. However, there is still a gaping “data void” such that many species and many habitats remain so poorly represented in either of the databases as to be functionally invisible for most studies. It is important that we support efforts to increase the availability of data, and the representativeness of these data, so that we can better predict and mitigate the impacts of anthropogenic disturbances.

First two to fledge

Congratulations to Brian and Evan!

Brian Machovina and Evan Rehm both successfully defended their dissertations earlier this spring.

Yesterday, Brian was awarded his doctorate diploma at the the FIU commencement ceremony (Evan is off in Saipan tracking birds). At the commencement ceremony, Brian was singled out and recognized by the FIU president, Mark Rosenberg, as a “Worlds Ahead” graduate.  This recognition was in honor of Brian’s long and winding history at FIU (he has been with FIU for 25 of its 50 years!) and his extremely successful dissertation research.  Way to be “World ahead” Brian!

All of us in the upwithclimate team are extremely proud of both Brian and Evan.  We are sad that they will are leaving FIU but we look forward to ongoing collaborations with them in the future.


El grupo del Dr. Feeley viaja a Colombia

No se puede pensar una forma mejor de pasar el descanso de primavera que ir a trabajar a la selva Colombiana. Compartiendo el mismo sentimiento, cuatro estudiantes del grupo del Dr. Feeley, Catherine Bravo, Tim Pérez, James Stroud y Belén Fadrique, junto con el propio Ken Feeley, viajaron al corazón del Amazonas.

El objetivo del viaje era conducir proyectos de investigación que contribuyeran a la conservación de la biodiversidad amazónica. Por esa razón fuimos a uno de los lugares más biodiversos del mundo, el Parque Nacional Natural Amacayacu, justo en el borde de Colombia, Perú y Brasil. Al parque se accede desde Leticia, DSC07703ciudad colombiana conocida como la puerta al Amazonas. Desde ahí, recorrimos en bote el río Amazonas, parando en las diferentes comunidades indígenas hasta llegar a la estación Amacayacu. La estación está construida sobre el agua del Amazonas y al estar en estación de lluvias, no es posible acceder a ella si no es en bote.

El equipo al completo, preparados para mojarnos

El equipo al completo, preparados para mojarnos

Éramos un grupo diverso compuesto por los cuatro estudiantes de FIU, dos estudiantes de grado de la Universidad Central de Medellin (Katherine Rivas Hernández and Sara Pineda Zapata), Andrés Barona, coordinador de la parcela, Dr. Juan Saldarriaga, profesor invitado, Dr. Ken Feeley y Dr. Álvaro Duque. En total sumábamos cinco nacionalidades por lo que los desayunos y las cenas eran momentos de discusión y comparación de las diferentes comidas, tradiciones y culturas de nuestros países de origen.

Dr. Duque es el artífice de esta aventura; él nos invitó y nos proporcionó la logística necesaria para el éxito de nuestros proyectos. Dr Duque es el investigador principal en la parcela Amacayacu, establecida en 2007 y perteneciente a la red CTFS. La parcela Amacayacu (-3.80917, -70.2679) consta de 25 hectáreas donde todos los árboles con más de 1 cm de diámetro están identificados y marcados siguiendo los protocolos de CTFS. La parcela está situada en la formación Pebas y presenta una topografía ligeramente irregular, la precipitación anual media es de 3000mm y la temperatura media mensual de 24-26ºC.

DSC07750Desde la estación hay que atravesar en bote la zona de bosque inundado para abrirse camino hacia la parcela. El primer día, el Dr. Duque y Andrés Barona nos ofrecieron una visita guiada en la que nos enseñaros las nociones básicas para orientarnos en la parcela. Creo que yo conseguí orientarme el último día.

Catherine Bravo intentando orientarse en la parcela

Catherine Bravo intentando orientarse en la parcela

Durante los cinco días de trabajo de campo colectamos hojas de especies de sotobosque localizadas en diferentes niveles de convexidad del suelo. Tim Pérez midió varios rasgos funcionales de las hojas y Catherine Bravo investigó la tolerancia de las hojas a la sequía. El objetivo principal era estudiar la plasticidad fenotípica en las especies de sotobosque.

Mi proyecto sobre plasticidad intra-individuo en la relación temperatura-tamaño de la hoja no pudo realizarse por problemas con la tecnología, cosas del directo. Por esa razón, tuve que preparar otro proyecto que contribuyera a la conservación de la diversidad y que trabajara al unísono con los proyectos de mis compañeros. Así, decidí estudiar los patrones de herbivoría en las especies de sotobosque. Para ello escaneé las hojas colectadas para calcular mediante programas informáticos el porcentaje de hoja que había sido consumida por herbívoros. De esta manera, podré relacionar la herbivoría con el resto de rasgos funcionales medidos y los niveles de convexidad del suelo. ¿Son quizás las hojas más finas las más consumidas? ¿O quizás si son duras puedes evitar ser consumidas por herbívoros?

Mientras tu miras a la mariposa, yo miro a los agujeritos de las hojas

Mientras tu miras a la mariposa, yo miro a los agujeritos de las hojas

Los resultados de este y los demás proyectos llegarán pronto al blog.

Esta experiencia ha sido una oportunidad única de recordarme por qué hago lo que hago. Estudiar semanas para un examen merece la pena si al final lo que consigo es poder ir al corazón de la selva, preguntarme porqué las cosas son tal cual las veo y tener el apoyo y los recursos para realizar un experimento y contestar a mi pregunta.

A su vez, este viaje sirvió para establecer nuevos vínculos entre los grupos del Dr. Feeley y Dr. Duque y fortalecer la colaboración ya existente. Adicionalmente, este proyecto es el resultado de la colaboración conjunta de las instituciones participantes en la iniciativa Socios para la Conservación de la Amazonia Colombiana, quien otorgó la financiación necesaria para llevarlo a cabo y a quien agradezco enormemente esta oportunidad.

El Río Amazonas

El Río Amazonas

The Feeley Lab goes to Colombia

One cannot think of a better way to spend the Spring Break than working in the Colombian Amazon. Sharing this very sentiment, four students of the Feeley Lab, Catherine Bravo, Tim Perez, James Stroud and I (Belén Fadrique), as well as Dr. Feeley himself, travelled to the heart of the Amazon.

The objective was to carry out research projects that will contribute to the conservation of Amazonian biodiversity. For this reason, we went to one of the most highly diverse forest in the world, the Parque Nacional Natural Amacayacu, DSC07703located close to the border between Colombia, Peru and Brazil. For accessing the park we had to go to Leticia, a Colombian city known as the door of the Amazon. From there, we took a boat that sailed along the Amazon river, stopping at the indigenous communities until arriving to the Amacayacu station. The station is built on the Amazon shore and as we were in the rainy season, the only way to arrive there was by boat.


The whole team ready to get wet

We were a diverse group formed by the four FIU students, two undergraduate students from Universidad Central Medellin, Andrés Barona, plot manager, Dr. Juan Saldarriaga, invited professor, Dr. Feeley and Dr. Alvaro Duque. As a whole, we added up to five nationalities, therefore breakfast and dinner were moments for comparing and contrasting the different cultures and traditions of our own countries.

Dr. Duque was the person who made this adventure possible. He invited us and provided us with all the necessary logistics for the success of our projects. Dr. Duque is the Principal Investigators of the plot. The Amacayacu plot (-3.80917, -70.2679) is part of the CTFS (Center for Tropical Forest Science) network; it was established in 2007 and has an extension of 25ha. The plot is located in the tropical moist forest life zone (Holdridge et al., 1978) in the Pebas formation, on Tertiary sedimentary plains characterized by a hilly and slightly dissected topography. Annual mean precipitation is 3000 mm and monthly average temperature is 24-26ºC. In the plot, all trees are tagged and identified following the CTFS protocols.DSC07750

In order to reach the plot from the station, we had to go through the flooded forest by boat. The first day, Dr. Duque and Andrés Barona offered a guided visit where they showed us basic notions for orientation inside the plot. I don´t think I was fully oriented until the last day of work.


Catherine Bravo trying to get oriented in the plot

During the five days of field work, we collected and processed leaves of understory species located on different levels of soil convexity, a proxy to soil moisture. Tim Perez measured several leaf traits and Catherine Bravo investigated drought tolerance. The common goal of our projects was to study phenotypic plasticity in understory species.

My project about intra-individual plasticity and the temperature-size leaf relationship did not work for technological difficulties. For that reason, I started another project that would contribute to both, diversity conservation and to the other projects carried out by the lab. Therefore, I decided to study herbivory patterns in understory species. I scanned the collected leaves in order to calculate, by using computer software, the percentage leaf consumed by herbivores. With this information, I could relate the herbivory percentage with the rest of the functional traits measured and with the soil convexity. Maybe thinner leaves are consumed more. Or maybe, if the leaves are tougher they can avoid being eaten by herbivores. Would this change with convexity?

While you look at the butterfly, I look at the holes on the leaves

While you look at the butterfly, I look at the holes on the leaves

Results from this and the other projects will arrive soon to this blog!

This experience has been a unique opportunity which has reminded me why I do what I do. Studying for weeks for an exam is worthy if at the end I get to go to the heart of the jungle, wonder why things are like they are, and I get the support for researching and experimenting until my questions are answered.

Additionally, this journey allowed us to establish new links between the groups of Dr. Feeley and Dr. Duque and to strengthen the already existing collaboration. In addition, this project was the result of the joint collaboration of the different participating institutions in the initiative: Socios para la Conservación de la Amazonía Colombiana, which funded me to carry out the project and which I am very grateful for.


The Amazon river