The Carnegie Institution for Science is a unique private organization devoted to advanced study of the earth, life, and the universe. The pioneer cosmologist Edwin Hubble (“Hubble constant”), geologist Charles Richter (“Richter scale”), geneticist Barbara McClintock, and many Nobel laureates from several different disciplines are or were Carnegie investigators. The institution has instruments orbiting Mercury, is a lead partner in constructing the world’s biggest telescope in Chile, and has one of the world’s most sophisticated ecological monitoring devices, the Carnegie Aerial Observatory (CAO). This is a two-engine 20-passenger plane that Greg Asner and colleagues has fitted with millions of dollars worth of specially-designed lasers and spectrometers. It can sample hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest per day, using LIDAR to build a 3-dimensional model of the forest’s trees with 8 cm resolution. At the same time as it acquires LIDAR data, it also samples the spectral properties of light reflected from the vegetation, gathering reflectance information at hundreds of different wavelengths (colors). This spectral data gives information about the chemical and physical properties of the leaves, and also provides a spectral fingerprint that can later be matched to field-collected spectral fingerprints from known species of trees. Some trees have such distinctive fingerprints that they can be identified to species with this data; more commonly, they can be identified to genus, though sometimes only to family. The detailed structural, chemical and taxonomic data acquired by the CAO would be impossible to gather at the landscape level by any other method, and Greg’s work is dramatically expanding the range of questions that ecologists can ask about forest ecosystems.
Last year Greg had planned to use our mosaic of forests as reference sites for a study of Andean forests on different geological substrates and elevations. Greg and his partner Robin Martin visited our Rio Zunac Reserve, his flight plans got approved by the Ecuadorian authorities, and everything seemed ready to go, but in the end he was not allowed to bring the plane into the country. This year, however, Greg was able to bring the plane in for a more modest ten-day study of Amazonia. The plane’s home for those ten days was the military base in Shell, a town in the upper Rio Pastaza watershed near our Rio Anzu Reserve. One of the CAO’s flight transects covered a two-kilometer wide strip from west to east (high to low) through our area, perhaps including parts of up to four of our reserves. This will be a very valuable data set that will teach us a great deal about the structure and diversity of these forests. However, it will take about a year to fully process the data, so we’ll have to be patient.
The president of the Carnegie Institution for Science, Matt Scott, is a well-known geneticist and serious photographer. He came t0 Ecuador last month to fly with Greg, but first he wanted to visit some of our reserves. Our endangered Black-and-chestnut Eagles (Spizaetus isidori) were nesting again in our Rio Zunac Reserve after last year’s tragic nest failure, so this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to observe the species as it went about its business.
I picked him up in the Quito airport. The trip from Quito to Banos was picturesque as always. The glacier of Cotopaxi was covered in a layer of fresh volcanic ash, and small puffs of ash and vapor were still rising up from the crater as we drove past it.
The next day we had an appointment with the Black-and-chestnut Eagles at 10am-11am. Our guards told us the parents usually brought prey to the baby at that time, but were otherwise rarely seen around the nest. The nest is about 3-4 hours away from the road, after a forty minute drive from Banos, so we had to get up early and rush out there. It was hard to keep up a good pace, since beautiful things kept distracting us. Still, we managed to get to the nest observation spot at almost exactly 11:00, and sure enough, there was the adult in the nest, along with the chick and something dead. The adult flew off almost immediately but shortly returned to feed on the prey item while the sated chick slept. The other adult was also nearby and both called frequently. We spent an hour watching them. It was a wonderful thing to see.
The next day we went to our Rio Anzu Reserve near the Shell airport and the CAO. That reserve is not very rich in big stuff, but there are so many interesting small things that it is hard to take ten steps without stopping for photos. We eventually got to the Rio Anzu river and the magnificent fossil-bearing limestone formations capped with ladyslipper orchids (Phragmipedium pearcei). Though it was getting late, Matt asked to stay longer. I always like to hear that from a visitor!!
Then we went to the military base to see the CAO. Security was tight and the military were not eager to let a pair of muddy rubber-booted gringos walk through their installations. Nevertheless we were able to talk our way through the multiple layers of officials who scrutinized us. But we didn’t want to ruffle any feathers so when we finally got to the plane, we just took a quick look at it and went back (still under military escort, but actually a very friendly one).
By the time we got to Greg and Robin’s hotel in nearby Puyo it was already dark. Greg was sitting at a table outside working on maps in his laptop, and he showed me the transects he had flown so far. I went back to Banos that night but Matt stayed and got to fly in the CAO over the following days. Lucky man!
Matt, thanks very much for your visit! It was an honor for us to show you our forests.