Field work at home - in the tropics

Submitted by editor on 18 October 2016.Get the paper!

Most biologists in temperate countries wonder how it is to study ecological systems in megadiverse tropical countries. Yes, it is thrilling, a true privilege. By walking in pristine tropical forests, savannas, and grasslands sometimes you have a sensation similar to a small Buddhist illumination (satori). However, we would like to provide the readers with an alternative perspective in this short story. As biologists trained in the tropics, we learned to focus all of our attention on undisturbed natural habitats. 

That’s no problem, considering that we need to know how nature functions under little human influence and also the huge gaps in knowledge about tropical biodiversity. But we forget that urban, peri-urban, rural, and agricultural habitats need to be studied too, as our planet, in fact, is now a mosaic of pristine and altered environments. By carrying out fieldwork in a peri-urban protected area such as Mangabeiras, one of our study sites, we help not only fill part of this gap, but we also benefit from many other advantages. First, ecological phenomena that take place within or around metropoles have significant influence on human health and food security. Second, carrying out fieldwork in your city is much cheaper, and this is quite important in a developing country, where money is not readily available for basic environmental research, especially in times of economic crisis. Third, we have personal memories with those areas. People born in Belo Horizonte, where most of the authors of our paper live, usually have their first contact with nature as kids playing with their parents in urban parks. Growing up and carrying out fieldwork as an adult scientist in Mangabeiras is like fulfilling the Circle of Life. In conclusion, our message to young, tropical ecologists is: if you want to understand the structure and dynamics of ecological systems, such as the multilayer "tangled bank" we tried to disentangle in our study, why not begin in your backyard?

Marco Mello

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