Villa Carmen celebrates 3 years of conservation research!

People on boatToday ACA’s Villa Carmen Biological Station & Reserve celebrates its third birthday! In 2012 alone, Villa Carmen welcomed over 800 researchers, students, government officials, conservationists, volunteers, and birders, while steadily enhancing facilities to include a new lab and dorm space, an extensive trail network, organic gardens, and more.

Villa Carmen rounds out ACA’s network of three biological stations, which are strategically positioned to span the vast array of unique ecosystems from the high Andean cloud forest to the lowland Amazon basin.

In just three years, Villa Carmen has established itself as a bustling hub for scientists and conservationists. Over 150 researchers have visited the station from institutions around the world, cataloguing more than 590 species of plants and animals, and leading 38 research projects to date, studying everything from native fish and ants, to woolly monkeys and spectacled bears. Villa Carmen has also hosted numerous field courses on biodiversity, climate change, conservation, and culture, such as this group from the University of Minnesota (right).

Villa Carmen is also a living laboratory for best practices in sustainable agriculture, and shares lessons learned with residents from surrounding communities. Villa Carmen grows its own local organic crops, while researchers study ways to enhance soil fertility using biochar. Last year, Villa Carmen hosted an international workshop on sustainable agriculture where world experts and local Amazonian farmers shared techniques and experiences.

Motion-Sensing Cameras Capture Elusive Wildlife

Jaguar on motion sensing camerasVilla Carmen’s camera traps photograph a diverse array of wildlife, allowing researchers to catch a glimpse of many rare and endangered species in their natural habitat, including:

  • 10 individual jaguars, including 2 pregnant females
  • A female giant armadillo with her pup
  • Lowland species including tapirs, giant anteaters, short-eared dogs, and curassows
  • Rare birds like the white-cheeked tody tyrant, rufous-vented ground cuckoo, and grey-bellied hawk
  • 28 different species in total so far!

Innovations in Biochar

Research at Villa Carmen has focused on biochar, a form of charcoal made by cooking plant biomass under reduced oxygen levels, producing a porous surface ideal for the growth of beneficial soil fungi and bacteria. When introduced to tropical soils, biochar not only sequesters carbon, it also boosts plant yields by as much as 40%, which reduces deforestation and carbon emissions, all while making use of the abundant but underutilized resource of fast growing bamboo.

Trees race upslope in response to climate change

Around ACA’s Wayqecha Cloud Forest Biological Station, it was noticed that the cloud forest’s tree species were slowly creeping up the Andean mountainside, moving at an average rate of 8 to 12 vertical feet per year. Why were the trees heading uphill? As the weather heats up due to gl obal climate change, trees must migrate upslope toward cooler, more hospitable temperatures.

But while individual trees can move up, they face a barrier when they come to the tree line. In a paper published in September, authors including Dr. Dave Lutz, one of the first researchers to set foot in Wayqecha after its creation, and Dr. Miles Silman, an ACA board member, found that forests above 6,500 feet are hardly moving—barely half a foot upslope each year, nearly 100 times slower than needed to keep pace with climate change.  

Additionally, intentional grassland fires (set by local communities to create more farmland or grazing pasture for cattle) often blaze out of control and spread into the cloud forests, lowering the treeline and preventing trees at the top from further movement upslope. Unmanaged cattle, left to wander in grasslands, also eat young tree seedlings trying to establish themselves along the forest edges. 

According to a study by evolutionary ecologist Dr. Ken Feeley, we could be looking at massive tree and plant extinctions over the next 50 to 75 years. 

That’s why ACA has been focusing its efforts on helping the trees have room to move. By working with local communities, ACA aims to improve cattle management and agricultural practices while training the communities to prevent and fight forest fires, like in the photo below. 

Silman, Lutz, and Feeley are all members of a consortium called the Andes Biodiversity and Ecosystems Research Group (ABERG for short). ACA has been closely collaborating with these scientists and using their research findings to improve the impact of our conservation projects in Peru. 

ABERG’s work was recently profiled in a series of articles and radio interviews entitled “Peru: Race in the Rain Forest,” written by Pulitzer Prize nominee Justin Catanoso. Check them out for more information!