A little over two weeks ago, I had a paper focusing on Anolis gundlachi published in Herpetology Notes. I had known since I was a child that I wanted to be a herpetologist, but when I graduated in 2003 with a Bachelor’s in Environmental Studies, there weren’t many opportunities in my area; I fell into environmental consulting, where I stayed for five years.
Eventually, I came to realize that my life’s journey would never change if I didn’t force it to. In addition to my love of herpetology, I had always wanted to live in the tropics, so when my lease in Atlanta was up in 2008, I sold most of my belongings and went to live and volunteer at Las Casas de la Selva, an approximately 1,000 acre sustainable forestry project in Patillas, Puerto Rico.
Started on the remnants of an old, abandoned coffee plantation, in the early 1980’s the founders of the project planted the introduced timber tree “Blue mahoe” (Talipariti elatum) on approximately 300 acres, allowing the rest of the property to undergo secondary succession. Now, the T. elatum is being extracted, and younger native trees that have grown beneath the plantation canopy are left behind. The project is staffed entirely by volunteers, and scientific research is carried out with help from the Earthwatch Institute. For those not aware, Earthwatch is a non-profit organization that provides a unique form of ecotourism mixed with research. Potential travelers fill out an application, and if approved, join a group for an expedition to one of the dozens of projects Earthwatch partners with, for the sole purpose of assisting with scientific research. I was given permission to design a study and use Earthwatch volunteers to gather data.
My research idea was simple enough, to set up plots in areas with and without Talipariti elatum and see if the presence of the tree made a difference in anole abundance. With four to six Earthwatch groups per year, I was well on my way to collecting large amounts of data. Meanwhile, as this was my first field survey ever, I was teaching myself “on the fly” through trial and error, as well as spending nights in my casita reading books on research design, ecology, and Puerto Rican herpetofauna.
One of the most disheartening moments during my research was when I had gained enough experience to realize…that I needed to start over. After reading numerous articles and books dealing with anoles and general ecology, after accumulating almost two years in the field, I decided that I couldn’t in good faith rely on the data I had gathered at the start of my project. I was too inexperienced when I had first started the study, and I felt that I simply couldn’t be certain of the identifications I had made during previous counts; such are the hazards of self-teaching. I was also convinced that in my attempts to survey as large an area as possible, I had included far too many plots in my study, preventing me from gathering useful data; even if the anole identifications were accurate in each plot, I had so many that I had ended up with few anole counts that allowed me to compare the seasonal abundance of one plot to another. I reduced the size of my study area to one “control” area (without mahoe) and one “plantation” area (with mahoe), with each area containing six plots. It was a hard lesson to learn, and even harder to admit my mistakes to myself in the first place.
I also learned a lesson in regard to “citizen science,” of which I am still a huge advocate. I now know that in order to get reliable data, it is up to the researcher to set aside an adequate amount of time for training, as well as to implement a research design that is appropriate for the level of experience your volunteers have.
I restarted my research; and although at first I was decidedly taciturn at going back to the starting line, as I conducted more and more counts, I realized I was getting good, usable data. After I felt I had enough counts, I brought my survey to a close, wrote the paper manuscript, reached out to more experienced colleagues to review it, and eventually submitted it to Herpetology Notes, and received feedback and requests for revisions. Now, that paper has been published, and to me, it means so much more than just the results showing that the null hypothesis couldn’t be rejected–my paper is proof-positive that I can do this. I can be a herpetologist. I can learn the proper methods and protocols of research design. As someone who is largely self-taught and is getting a late start, completing this study make me certain that my best is yet to come, and I can make useful contributions to the discipline.
The paper‘s abstract:
The island of Puerto Rico has one of the highest rates of regrowth of secondary forests largely due to abandonment of previously agricultural land. The study was aimed at determining the impact of the presence of Talipariti elatum, a timber species planted for forest enrichment, on the abundance of anoles at Las Casas de la Selva, a sustainable forestry project located in Patillas, Puerto Rico. The trees planted around 25 years ago are fast-growing and now dominate canopies where they were planted. Two areas, a control area of second-growth forest without T. elatum and an area within the T. elatum plantation, were surveyed over an 18 month period. The null hypothesis that anole abundance within the study areas is independent of the presence of T. elatum could not be rejected. The findings of this study may have implications when designing forest management practices where maintaining biodiversity is a goal.