Pacaya-Samiria: The Land of Mirrors (and Mud)

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I have long been divided as to which area of biology I would like to work in. It is an incredibly vast field, and though there is much overlap (often the boundaries

Dramatic sunsets were not too uncommon on the river.

Dramatic sunsets were not too uncommon on the river.

between “disciplines” seem quite artificial), academia often tries to box one into a subcategory. This summer, to help make the decision, I embarked on two very different kinds on internship; one in a molecular biology lab in my home city of Dublin and another as a research assistant with Operation Wallacea in the Pacaya Samiria Reserve, Peru. It is with the second internship for which I very graciously received funding for from the Principal’s Go Abroad Fund. There, I was to engage in a wide variety of biodiversity and ecological research, from dolphin and macaw surveys on the Samiria River to primate and habitat surveys in the dense Amazonian forest.

I started out on this trip very uncertain; uncertain as to whether or not I could cope with field research, the isolation, the heat, language barriers… It was going to be incredibly important work experience for me, and I was suitably anxious as to how it would turn out.

A saddleback tamarin, one of the five main primate species in the reserve.

A saddleback tamarin, one of the five main primate species in the reserve.

Yet as soon as I reached the reserve, these troubles were put to rest. I was with a group of approximately twenty other like-minded research assistants – including my own twin sister – from a wide variety of backgrounds. We started a lecture series the moment we set foot onto the research boat, and I immediately began to learn how data was converted into information and advice for governments and other policy-making bodies.

Mist-netting, one of my favoured activities. This is me with a rufous capped nunlet. Photo credit: Lucy Hadingham

Me with a rufous capped nunlet during a mist-netting survey. Photo credit: Lucy Hadingham.

However, I obtained the most value from the surveys themselves. It was my first experience of collecting data in the field, and I tried my utmost not to be overwhelmed at first. Now, I can identify the age of a dolphin just by the sound it makes when it comes up for air, or I can similarly identify dozens of species of wading birds, and count their flocks in their thousands. In particular, I picked up skills in mist-netting, learning how to delicately remove birds from the net, how to measure them, sex them and ring them where appropriate.

Great and Snowy Egrets on a wading bird survey; one day, we counted in excess of 16,500 birds during one half-hour interval.

Great and Snowy Egrets on a wading bird survey; one day, we counted in excess of 16,500 birds during one half-hour interval.

These may seem like quaint, abstract skills that serve little use outside of the insulated world of the Pacaya-Samiria Reserve, but it was in the acquisition of these skills that I benefited  the most. I achieved a certain flexibility; now I know that sound is often more valuable than sight or that the base ten is not always the most convenient counting system for birds.

A three-toed sloth, often seen in the trees whilst sailing down the river.

A three-toed sloth, often seen in the trees whilst sailing down the river.

On a personal level, the trip did help with my near-chronic uncertainty. I realised that the divide between laboratory research and field research, though not entirely artificial, is not as stark as it is made out to be. The choices I have to make in the future will not lead to a career that will be irreconcilably in a lab or the field; it is possible to have both.

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