This past semester, I took a class with a professor who specializes in mercury in the environment. This exposed me to various research projects about mercury in the Long Island Sound, USA . I learned that there are variations in the natural abundance of mercury in the environment and that humans have increased this level via various industrial practices. Connecticut, where I attend college, is a prime area to study the cycling and effects of anthropomorphic mercury in the environment because of this area’s historical contribution to the hat-making industry. In the 1800s and early 1900s, liquid mercury was used to mat fur pelts that were manufactured into fashionable hats. Due to the neurological effects of mercury, the saying “Mad as a hatter” was born.
A large group of professors and students from Duke University Department of Public Health visited Villa Carmen Station this weekend. Their project in medical entomology and environmental toxicology examines gold mining in this part of Peru to see if there is a correlation between the environmental mercury concentration and the mercury concentration in residents’ blood, hair, nails, and food intake. Historically, mercury is a key component in gold mining. The global increase in the price of gold has resulted in a recent escalation of gold mining in this area, and possibly, an increase in the environmental mercury concentration. With these data, the Duke team will compare incidents of malaria (and other diseases) to see if mercury makes individuals more susceptible to infections. Their project is an example of how environmental mercury research is of interest to many different scientists from different disciplines around the world.
One of the clearest indicators of change in the environment from the Wayquecha cloud forest to the Villa Carmen rainforest is the abundance of fruit dotting the mass of green vegetation. Upon our arrival, we were guided down pathways lined with pineapple plants (imagine a ripe pineapple encircled by a fan of thick, large, green leaves). The garden, from which all the fruits and vegetables we eat at Villa Carmen come from, is full of papaya. Las trochas, or trails, are intermittently bordered with berries. Yesterday, we began training with various types of insect nets. During this session, Caroline pointed out a guava tree with many green fruit blooms. A little farther down the trail we finally spotted a ripe guava fruit begging to be picked. Having never picked a fruit of this size myself, I went for it! However, I immediately thought of those cartoons I watched as a child where the eager character bites into a fresh apple and meets an unwelcome worm, and I resisted my excitement to bite into the guava. Eventually I overcame my reluctance, took out my pocket knife, sliced up the guava, and dispersed it among the group members. It tasted incredibly fresh, slightly sweet, and had a relatively thick consistency. Needless to say, it was well worth the risk of a worm.
On our third day at Wayquecha Biological Station, we began our adventure walking along the main road in search for a “secret garden gate” that Professor Chaboo described. At first, we were unable to find the gate, until we realized that a clay and bamboo house inscribed with the words “Casa Interpretativa del Manu” now camouflages the path. We walked down the hidden trail and were immediately greeted with an assortment of leaf beetles and grasshoppers. Each one of us on the trip collected some sort of insect or two. After the brief scare of Paige scaling the side of a relatively steep drop off in search of her water bottle, we continued our way down the trail to find a site to set up our first insect trap. Past the “secret garden gate”, we were immersed in a landscape full of new and exciting flora. A bit farther down, we crossed a small, wooden bridge suspended above a waterfall. Then, we continued on an open trail that scaled the side of a mountain overlooking the spectacular cloud forest.
We finally came upon the perfect spot to set up the Malaise trap. This consists of netting that catches insects flying in two directions. A roof of the same material meets the wall of netting and takes advantage of the insect’s instinct to climb upwards. The insect is channeled into a container filled with ethanol. We began by tying the tops of the 6×6 foot net trap to trees with rope and then secured it into the ground with stakes. Meanwhile, Alex circulated around us, filming the entire process. The incline and moistness of the ground made the set up a bit tricky, but we eventually completed the process with success. Afterwards, we took 20 or so minutes to ourselves to explore the beautiful moss-covered rainforest and observe the many other traps set up by other researchers. I think it is safe to say that there is no better location or circumstance in which to learn a field method!