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Sidebar – What’s it like to do research in the Brazilian Rain Forest?

Forest Service field ecologist Jimmy Grogan at the Marajoara field site in southeast Pará, Brazil. The ‘sororoca’ plant with the wide leaves is a relative of the banana. Although the photo was taken in the daytime, the light is low because the researchers are in the forest understory. Photo by M. Loveless

Forest Service field ecologist Jimmy Grogan at the Marajoara field site in southeast Pará, Brazil. The ‘sororoca’ plant with the wide leaves is a relative of the banana. Although the photo was taken in the daytime, the light is low because the researchers are in the forest understory. Photo by M. Loveless

I have lived and worked abroad for most of my adult life, including many years in Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia, so it was not too difficult adjusting to life in the Brazilian Amazon. I learned to speak Portuguese in the field; my tutors were the field assistants that I hired locally. The politics of doing research on this species are challenging and complicated. That side of my research has been almost as educational and fascinating as the actual fieldwork.

I’ve been fortunate to live and work in remote forests where there are no villages or towns nearby, no noise or light pollution, no electricity, and no running water when the streams dry up during the dry season. Under those conditions, it’s possible to experience forest life on a very satisfying level. As a plant ecologist, I can observe the daily and seasonal rhythms of growth and dormancy at the level of the forest community — by that I mean the growth and flowering and fruiting schedules that trees and other plants keep through the year and from year to year. When you are there every day in the middle of it, these rhythms gradually come into focus, and the forest comes alive in a way that feels completely integrated.

Many people find it surprising to learn that the Brazilian rain forest and the other tropical forests I’ve worked in are not perpetually wet and steaming. Mahogany only grows naturally in tropical forests that have a pronounced dry season for one-third to one-half of the year. When that happens, the streams dry up, the trees drop their leaves, the understory goes brown, the ticks and deerflies come out, and everything gets wilted in the heat until the rains come back.

The most important thing people should know about mahogany is the same thing they should know about other living species that we humans consume – if consumption exceeds supply indefinitely, supply will vanish. For more information, visit http://www.swietking.org/.

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