Ecology of a Biodiversity Hotspot.

The Brazilian Atlantic Coastal Forest.

29 February 2020 – going home

Saturday was the final day of our field course, and was again overcast, rainy and cool. Our day began with our last breakfast in Brazil, which consisted of fried plantains, soft queijo minas cheese, bananas and papayas. The students and Dr. Carvalho presented Dr. Lougheed with a handcrafted viola caipira, a 10 stringed guitar-like instrument popular in Brazilian folk music. A token of our appreciation for Dr. Lougheed’s hard work, each student contributed approximately $60 reals to buy it. Dr. Lougheed was very moved by this and disappeared to his room for a bit …

The main of the day was a geocaching competition. Allen hid 12 questions related to the course made by him, Dr. Lougheed and Dr. Carvalho in various places around the field station and recorded their GPS locations. He then explained the rules of the exercise to the class, gave a few tips, and provided the coordinates of the questions. Each group then took a GPS unit and headed off into the rainforest. Every group used a different strategy, with some entering the coordinates into the GPS units beforehand in an attempt to create an optimal path, others using them to check their location relative to the questions, and a few ignoring the GPS units and following the trail. Group 2, consisting of Sean, Cheyenne, Maleeka and Sierra ended up winning the competition, getting 10 points of out 12 questions with a time of 59 minutes despite the heavy rain that began mid-way through the activity.

The students then finished packing their bags and cleaning up and we departed for São Paulo–Guarulhos International Airport at 3:15 PM. We arrived at the airport at 6:30 PM after a quick rest-stop at a Frango Assado on the SP-070, near the SP-099. After an uneventful queue through security and Brazilian customs, we departed for Chicago-O’Hare and then Toronto-Pearson on UA844/UA476. Thankfully, neither of our flights were delayed, and despite rushing through US customs and the baggage check at O’Hare, we made it back to Toronto by 10 AM on Sunday, March 1st.

February 28 2020 – Finishing up research projects & Ubatuba

Our Friday began with more light rain, overcast skies, and a surprisingly cool 18 degrees C. This was expected, as precipitation in the Mata Atlantica peaks in January, with an average of 14 rainy days in February and a cumulative annual precipitation of 2200 mm. The constant rain and high humidity have prevented our laundry from ever drying and has made our research projects and outdoor activities quite soggy.

Most students used the morning to put the finishing touches on their research projects. My group in particular collected some auxiliary data for our bromeliad tank water quality study. During our data collection, we noticed that the bromeliads in the forest with well developed reproductive organs typically had less water in their tanks, and that bromeliads on the road were typically smaller and had less consistent water quality than the forest specimens. We speculated that this species of bromeliad is best suited to a low disturbance environment with high canopy coverage, and that the tank water acts as a store of nutrients for reproduction. To examine the latter hypothesis, we took photos of each of our sampled bromeliads to categorize their stage of reproductive development. We finished the final touches on our research projects by noon, and some of us went to the north side of the field station to birdwatch, spotting some azure-winged tanagers, saffron finches, and the ever-present parakeets.

The main activity of our afternoon was a trip down to Ubatuba, with the aim of experiencing a Brazilian town and buying souvenirs. Located 20 km down the mountain and 900 m below the field station of Nucleo Santa Viriginia, Ubatuba is a tourist town with a population of around 90 000. The name of the town comes from Tupi for many arrows/canoe. It is known for its beaches, of which there are over 100 in the municipality, and surfing. The town is the official surfing capital of Sao Paulo, and Praia Itamambuca, on the north end of the municipality, is particularly well known for hosting national competitions.

As our visit came on the aftermath of Carnaval, the town felt subdued and quiet. We explored the town for two and a half hours, buying local delicacies such as juçara açai sorbet, Brazilian coffee, empanadas, and Carnaval beer, and souvenirs such as local ceramics, bird books and coffee drips. At 5:30, we took shelter from a sudden onset of rain at the Sullivan Bar Cervejaria, near Projeto Tamar and the Aquário de Ubatuba, and finally bused back up, arriving at the field station at 7:15. Our day ended with barbequing queijo coalho cheese and handmade hamburgers, complete with lettuce, tomatoes, caramelized onions and condiments, and species accounts from Kristen and Hayden, who covered the Red Breasted Toucan and Coral Snake respectively. Kristen taught us that Red Breasted Toucans, similar to flycatchers and owls, are secondary cavity nesters (meaning they inhabit tree cavities made by other species), while Hayden informed us that the ‘red touch black, safe for Jack’ saying is only true for Texas.

February 27 2020 – Species natural history, more field research, and learning more about the nucelo

Species Accounts

We commenced our morning with three illuminating species accounts. First up, Kayleigh introduced us to the coastal tree toad (Dendrophryniscus cf. brevipollicatus), a nocturnal toad that is endemic to Brazil and can be found living in bromeliads! Secondly, Maleeka enlightened us on the red-tailed amazon (Amazonas brasiliensis), a picturesque parrot with striking colours that is considered near threatened, primarily due to ongoing poaching and deforestation in Brazil. Last but not least, we had Arjun tell us about the paca (Cuniculus paca), a rotund rodent that can jump into water from a height of over 5 meters! Fun fact: when the male paca chooses a mate, he sprays the female paca with urine while she joyously leaps about. Overall, a morning filled with excitement and knowledge! Group Projects All groups ventured out into the field again today in hopes of collecting more data for their research projects. The weather managed to rain out some groups, but many prevailed. Several groups were able to collect sufficient data and run preliminary statistics to visualize their results. Hopefully everyone will be able to finish off their data collection tomorrow and conclude the final project at home.

BREAKING NEWS: Ani witnessed a real BBC Planet Earth moment play out before her eyes. She burst into the cafeteria and exclaimed, “THE CRAZIEST THING JUST HAPPENED!”. She then proceeded to reiterate her dramatized interpretation of her experience. A cicada was flying directly towards her and out of NOWHERE a flycatcher swooped in and chomped the cicada, consequently ‘saving’ Ani’s life, or at least preventing an unpleasant forehead-large insect collision.

Parque Estadual Serra do Mar – Nucleo Santa Virginia Presentation

During the afternoon, we gathered in the classroom for a presentation from Fernanda, the park manager, and Will, a local biologist employed at the park. They taught us about the park’s history, ecology, conservation efforts and research programs. We learned that the park is 42 years old, is comprised of 332 000 hectares, 25 municipalities, and has 10 nucleos. FUN FACT: there are three jaguars currently living in the Nucleo Santa Virigina area!! We watched a short video compilation of some park animal caught on camera traps around the nucleo. Some animals in the video included: pumas, jaguars, cutias, pacas, tapirs, and many more!

BIRTHDAY CELEBRATIONS – We finished the night off with some delicious white chocolate cake from Steve and Rute’s new favourite local café, in celebration of Emily and Emma’s birthday. Their wedding-like cake cutting was a fun end to a great day!

February 26 2020 – Of toads & research

Hi blog followers! I guess you could say that today was a hopping success. It started bright and early with twenty students gathered around a cucura toad. If you aren’t sure what that is, the cucura toad is a large, dappled creature typically found by rivers and waterways. Surprisingly, we found our new warty friend near the garbage bins last night. The cucura is larger than most amphibians endemic to the area, and all parties were absolutely thrilled to see this novelty. The discovery of this amazing creature opened up the opportunity for Darcey M. to present her species account and teach us all about it. She was very excited to tell us about the origin of this toad’s name, which comes from the indigenous word for “ugly man”, but we’ll let you be the judge of that. Besides this exciting species encounter, the day was mostly dedicated towards the students’ data collection for their major projects.

The students have managed to come up with interesting project designs, which were perfected last night during an in-depth class discussion. Many students started collecting data early this morning, trying to avoid the unpredictable weather that Sao Paulo State is known for. Throughout the day, Kristen, Hayden, Amelie and Arjun group continued to explore the habitat preferences of the endemic toadlets. Meghan, Heather, Sou and Emily P. spent the day measuring the surface area of leaves and forest coverage along the forest trail. Rylie, Emily L., Kayleigh, Ani continued to examine bulb density in Bromeliad epiphytes. Maleeka, Sean, Cheyenne and Sierra focused on pollinator preference on one of the flowering trees near the station. Finally, Allen, Emma, Alex and Darcey spent the day looking at variations in Bromeliad water quality according to location and disturbance. Unfortunately, around noon, a thunderstorm hit, and students had to press pause on their data collection. Luckily, the rain let up around 3, and students trucked through the muck to continue their research to collect data and fun times.

After a long day of collecting data, students took some time to input their data and take a look at some of their initial results. After a hearty dinner, some of the students treated themselves to a movie night and watched Parasite. Tomorrow – more data collection!

February 25 2020 – Research projects

Emma, Darcey, Alex and Allen

We woke up this morning to a clear sky and bright sunshine. After a delicious breakfast of freshly cut mangos, bananas and coffee, the class met to discuss our plans for the day. Drs. Lougheed and Carvalho told us to observe the environment around us and conduct preliminary studies to develop research questions, hypotheses and study designs. After our professors left for town to work and buy groceries, each group split up and went along the local trails and road to come up with studies.

My group, which includes Emma, Darcey, Alex and I (Allen), is interested in the micro-environments found in certain bromeliad species which hold water. As road development is a well known source of disturbance to forest habitats in the forms of fragmentation, soil disruption, canopy disruption, exposure and traffic, we want to test if there is a significant difference in the water quality of roadside bromeliads compared to those located deeper in the forest. We hiked down the Osvaldo Cruz road at 10:45 AM from the field station to gain some background knowledge on our planned study. After several minutes of fruitless walking without a single bromeliad, they began appearing in the more shaded areas of the roads. In total, we found 11 of the type of bromeliads we wanted (a variety with bright red leaves in the center that we’ve yet to identify) on 10 trees after close to 2 km of hiking.

After everyone returned from our morning explorations, had lunch and rested, our guide, Will, took us on a 2 and a half hour long, 4.8 km hike to two waterfalls on the Paraibuna River. We reached the first waterfall, Cachoeira do Salto Grande (Big Jump Waterfall), at 2:45 PM, a beautiful, perilous promenade of bare rock constantly splashed by the spray. Several of us slipped into the water with a guide rope on the safer side of the rocks for a quick swim. We reached the second waterfall, Cachoeira do Saltinho, a gentler set of drops upriver approximately an hour later. After another swim and photo session, our guide told us that our professors had returned, and we hurried back to the field station.

We recovered from our hike after showering, naps and dinner, and met to review each others’ studies at 7 PM. Each group pitched their ideas and proposed studies to the rest of the class and received feedback and criticism. A heavy thunderstorm began during our meeting, setting a dramatic atmosphere to our debate. After two hours of intensive discussion, we ended the day with new, eager plans for tomorrow.

February 24 2020 – Power of place and designing research projects

Sierra, Cheyenne, Sean, & Maleeka

Today was a bit of a quieter day. We started with a morning of a few student seminars about diversity hotspots and agriculture. This sparked discussion about the influence of foreign authorities on industrial agriculture and the high diversity among microclimates in Brazil. As the morning progressed, the sun broke through the clouds. We finally were able to dry our clothes and after a string of rainy days that left the air heavy with moisture, (a characteristic of the Coastal Atlantic Forest).
Today we photographed a horn leafed frog, and tree frogs Scinax rizibilis and Dendropsophus microps, larger and smaller respectively. While on a walk along the nearby river Arjun, Emma, Allen and Amelie were lucky enough to spot a lizard (Portugese: teiu) Salvator meriannae, and snap a photo before it dashed off. We then picked seminars back up with the topics of carbon credit and green emission, as well as biodiversity and climate change. This prompted a discussion of the ‘nowhere to go hypothesis’ in which animals that are already restricted to specific climate regimes localized on mountains, arctic environments or other ‘islands of occurrence’, so to speak, will be in serious trouble as their ranges will be unable to track their climate envelope if it disappears from the Earth altogether.

With the nice weather, some took the opportunity to soak up the sun in hopes to return to Canada with some colour. We spent some time catching up on work and hanging out, enjoying the rest and relaxation in contrast to the busy days we’d had before. We then broke into research groups and discussed our research questions, hypothesis testing, directional predictions, and pseudo replication. Several students went with Steve down the mountain to use the internet, checking on application statuses and interview appointments, and also helping get groceries. After this, we enjoyed dinner with a traditional Brazilian dessert made with corn and sweet condensed milk.

In the evening, we heard student seminars on ‘ecotourism’ of Brazil and Canada, ‘feeding the world: crops’, and ‘CITES’. We discussed whether or not ecotourism is really benefiting the locals of a community, as well as the positives and negatives it brings economically, socio-culturally, and environmentally. We revisited industrial agriculture and were quite surprised by new vs. old world crop origins, such as the Irish staple of potatoes being new world. Our last discussion of the night brought forward the concern of countries not properly following the appendices of CITES allowing flora and fauna to be exchanged illegally. A storm rolled in, filling the sky with gorgeous streaks of lighting which we watched from a safe distance before calling it a night.

See you back in Canada soon!

23 February 2020 – Exploring Nucleo Santa Virginia & environs

Hayden, Amelie, Arjun & Kristen

We had another later start this morning with breakfast being served at 8am. Our day was overcast with light rain for most of the day (surprise surprise). Undeterred by the lackluster weather, we met our guide for the day, Cristiano, at 9:30am. Cristiano guided us on a walk through the Santa Virgina forest. We learned about the Mamaca da Serra tree that produced beautiful white and purple flowers. This is a fairly common species in the area and is an example of a pioneer plant in the region’s successional forest. Most of the forest around the station is considered secondary (i.e. regrowth after disturbance). Christiano also pointed out that there were galls on the leaves of the Mamaca da Serra tree. This is an immune response that the tree produces when certain insects deposit eggs on the leaves.

Cristiano led us down to the Paraguana River, which runs by the back of the field station. This river is the main source of water for Rio de Janeiro state. Interestingly, this river has no significant sources of pollution and is the cleanest in the state. Near the river was an example of the Jaborandi plant, which is often used by local community members to treat kidney stones (& also bad hair via jaborandi-infused shampoo) when the leaves are boiled as a tea. As we continued our walk through the secondary forest, the canopy began to close in, leaf litter thickened along the path, and there were more epiphytes and vines hanging from the trees. In this more mature forest, we found a number of small (~1 cm in length) pumpkin toadlets. They were bright orange and found among the leaf litter on either side of the trail. We also found a juvenile venomous pit viper, which we made sure to treat with due respect.

We spent the afternoon around the field station at Santa Virgina catching up on sleep and assignments while doing some casual birding. Parakeets and rufous collard sparrows were among the most common species sighted. Hayden and Riley presented their respective seminars on coevolution and latitudinal gradients. Amelie also presented her species account on the Proceratophrys appendiculata (horn-leafed frog) which was found on yesterday’s night hike. To celebrate the end of the day and the end of our first full week in Brazil, we had a barbeque with a variety of local vegetables and meats. What a great way to cap off a lovely and fascinating day!

February 22 2020 – Stoking the competitive fire, new species, and student seminars

Group 5. Kayleigh, Emily, Riley and Ani

Birdathon – On your marks, get set, bird! This morning started off with a bang as we competed in our first (but hopefully not the last) birdathon of the trip. For those who aren’t aware, a birdathon is when individuals (or teams) try to find and identify the most bird species they can in a given time period. We only had one hour to identify species among our five groups, and the group who had correctly identified the most birds would receive a prize. After all was said and done, the five groups identified a total of 42 species. The winner of the birdathon was a group who identified 14 species, and they won a box of chocolates!

Pumpkin Toadlet – During our birdathon today, Dr. Clemente-Caralho found a pair of red pumpkin toadlets (Brachycephalus pitanga). These tiny, bright orange amphibians grow to 10-12 mm in length and have red spots on their backs. Interestingly, they are micro-endemic to this park, meaning they are only found here in Serra Do Mar in Brazil! These tiny toadlets live in the leaf litter on Atlantic coastal forest floors, and do not seem to have many natural predators (likely due to the fact that they are poisonous and have warning colouration). Unfortunately, not much is known about their life histories, population size, or distribution, as they are understudied and difficult to find. Thankfully, we had a complete camera team available at the drop of a hat to capture such an exciting event.

Species accounts and seminars – Today was a pretty rainy day in Brazil. To give our hiking boots a chance to dry, we listened to some species account and various seminar topics. The species accounts we heard focused on the black-footed piping guam (Pipile jacutinga) and the red pumpkin toadlets (B. pitanga). In today’s seminars, we heard from a number of students who covered topics such as birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, DNA barcoding, intermediate disturbance hypothesis, intertidal zones, mangroves, and epiphytes. Night walk After finishing up our seminars for the night, some of the group joined Dr. Lougheed and Dr. Clemente-Caralho for a night walk on the trail around the station. We suited up in our rain gear and headlamps to brave the night and check out the herpetofauna. We were able to catch 4 different species of amphibian and one snake (a pit viper Bothrops jararaca).

A great way to end off the day!

February 21 2020 – Intertidal zones

Today, we headed back to the Parque Estadual da Serra do Mar in Picinguaba. Our first lesson? Field work goes on rain or shine.

The purpose of this trip was to further expand our knowledge about intertidal zones and to explore the Atlantic Rainforest that follows the coastline. We arrived slightly soggy, but ready for an adventure. We were led by Cristo, a local guide who presented traditional ecological knowledge passed down through familial generations in combination with scientific knowledge. We were also accompanied by Lao and Francisco, our guides who have been with us throughout the week. After arriving at the station, around 9 AM, we headed to the beach for a nice walk in gentle rain in the direction of an area where the intertidal zones are clearly visible. On the way to this area, we identified sand dollars, crab carcasses, jellyfish, a lively blue crab and even found a stingray egg case! Occasionally during the walk, we stopped to enjoy the local birdlife that feeds and nests near the Brazilian Coast. We spotted several species of tanagers, as well as frigate birds soaring overhead in the wind, and sandpipers scavenging the shore. After witnessing the tanagers flittering through the trees, Emily Landon had the opportunity to give her assigned species account for the green headed tanager (Tangara seledon). She educated her fellow students on natural history traits of the bird, as well as phylogenetic relationships and their conservation status.

Once we reached the intertidal zone, Cristo demonstrated his Traditional Ecological Knowledge on the species found in the intertidal zones and the information that has been passed down from his father. He managed to detach a small mussel that was latched onto one of the granite rocks of the infralittoral zone (the top zone). He explained how these creatures are able to survive ~6 hours without water, which is one of the reasons they are able to survive on the top zone in this type of habitat. He handed the mussels to the students and allowed us to look at it in more detail. Other organisms that were found around the rocks were snails, barnacles, crabs, and insects. We were allowed to explore the rocks for around an hour and then climbed a series of rocks and headed into the forest. Several stops were made along the way when Cristo identified plant species that are used for traditional medicine. For example, the black coconut tree (Pulmeria brejauva), is a large tree that is easily identified by the large black spines along the trunk and the small coconuts it produces. The medicinal uses of this tree include the leaves, which are used for acupuncture, and the coconut milk, which is used to treat hepatitis. We also learned a fun fact about how the trunk spikes were used by indigenous people in the past as arrow tips. These individuals would dip these spikes in poison to enhance their effects and ability to take down game. Unfortunately, due to a sudden downpour, our adventure was cut short and we headed back to the visitor’s station of the park to dry off and eat traditional Brazilian food.

After eating and experiencing the unpredictable weather that São Paulo is known for, we headed back to the Nucleo Santa Virginica for some free time! Some of the students took the opportunity to catch up on some schoolwork, but most enjoyed a well-deserved nap. Tonight, we had the first of our seminars that each student had prepared before the course. We were educated on the geology of the Brazilian coast by Emily P., and the phytogeography of the Atlantic coastal forest by Amelie. Tomorrow, students will continue to present their presentations with a focus on the Brazilian coast. These seminars will form the “bedrock” (geology joke!) of our education on the geography, biology, and history of Brazil and the Atlantic Costal Rainforest, which we will use to form our research projects in the coming days.

February 20 2020 – Fazenda da Quilombolo

We left the Nucleo Santa Virginia field station at 7:40 to sunny, hot weather, and arrived at the visitor centre of the Quilombo community known as the Casa da Farinha (House of Flour) located approximately 5 km north of Picinguaba. One of several communities of Quilombolo in the State of Sao Paulo, the Casa da Farinha is named for its production of cassava flour and consists of 53 families – approximately 260 people. There, we met the community elder, Joseph Pedro, father of 11 children, and a community leader and our guide for the day, Feliciano. The Quilombo community was established in 1888, when slavery was abolished in Brazil, by Joseph Pedro’s father and several other former slaves. These slaves were used to farm sugarcane, which was processed into sugar and then cachaça alcohol, which was then transported by ship to Africa (or Europe) to buy more slaves. After slavery was abolished, these slaves were left to fend for themselves and formed tight knit communities, called Quilombo. Pedro told us that this is the essence of the Quilombo – because they have little, they must work together and put the community first.

Nowadays, due to regulations placed upon them by the government limiting their economic activities, Casa da Farinha produces cassava flour to sell, made from manioc roots that they grow in their agroforestry farm. This process is powered by a large watermill, located on the site of the former distillery. The manioc root is first washed in a large tumbler powered by the watermill. This removes the skin. It’s grated to produce a mash, which is then pressed to remove the toxic sap. The toxic sap is used as a natural pesticide, which also serves to dispose of it without polluting the river. Finally, the mash is dried, resulting in a starchy, rich flour. This, along with fish and bananas, are the staple foods of the Quilombo community.

We then embarked on a 1.5 km walk on the Trilha Corisco. This trail links the Quilombolos of Casa da Farinha to the large town of Paraty, approximately 20 km north on the Baia Carioca. It cuts across the valley and the border between the states of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, transecting the Atlantic Coastal Forest and ending at the Estr. Velha do Corisco. We learned about plants such as the inhame – an inedible cousin of the manioc which has heart shaped leaves, and taioba – an edible relative that has split leaves. As the restinga transitioned to hill forest, the soil became thin and poor, called sega pehira. We saw tube roots, known as sapopemba, and learned about the medicinal uses of the nutmeg tree.

Heather, Megan and Emma gave their species accounts today, on Dicksonia sellowiana, Psidium cattleyanum, and Hymenaea courbaril respectively. Dicksonia sellowiana is an endangered slow growing tree fern that is exploited as fertilizer for orchids (another highly endangered and exploited group). P. cattleyanum is an often invasive, fast-growing tree that thrives in poor soils and a wide range of environments. H. courbaril is a nitrogen fixing tree that produces large red pods filled with an edible, musky pulp that is high in protein and starches.

After our hill forest hike, we swam at a waterfall pool for 15 minutes, and enjoyed a lunch cooked for us by community members back at the Casa. We then listened to a talk on the Quilombo community by Joseph Pedro, and then visited the agroforest, where the community grew most of their food. Agroforestry in the Quilombo community began with fields stripped of their nutrients and microbiota by monoculture sugarcane farming and clear burning. The ruined fields were initially treated with green fertilizers and planted with fruit trees (such as banana) for shade and moisture, potato for stabilizing the soil, and herbaceous plants to restore the microbiota of the soil. These plants are not harvested, only used to restore soil quality. Cassava, corn and beans are then planted, in a partnership similar to the three sisters of Canada’s indigenous peoples. The cassava provides structural support for the beans and winter shelter for the corn, while the beans enrich the soil with nitrogen fixation. Two crops of beans and corn are harvested for every cassava harvest. Our trip to the Quilombo community then ended with a traditional song and dance, led by the community’s children (a group called the Jongo no Quilombo da Fazenda).

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