TRI Field Notes: Surveying Heliconia Species in Yasuní National Park

By Elizabeth Tokarz, 2015 TRI Fellow in Ecuador

How I came to be Heli Eli. (Note. In Spanish, the “H” is silent, making the pronunciation of the nickname ellie-ellie.)

It all started when I was looking for an herbaceous species to survey this summer. Yasuní National Park in Orellana, Ecuador is one of the sites of a Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute plot, monitored with a tree census every five or so years. However, as comprehensive as this census is, hundreds of plant species are overlooked, notably herbaceous species. Though I was originally vying for the nickname “Herbaceous Eli,” I opted to zero in on the Heliconia genus to make the census more realistic, considering I planned to head the project myself. The Heliconia species not only display beautiful bird-like bracts when flowering, hence the common name, False-Bird-of-Paradise, but they also tend to be large, as far as herbs go. In short, I expected Heliconia to stand out to an amateur plant identifier, like myself.

Here on the station, mornings are for seeking Heliconia individuals in Yasuní’s 50-hectare plot. Afternoons are for the herbarium, where I press collected bracts and leaves and compare field specimens to known species. Evenings are for inputting my data into a spreadsheet. Okay, that may be the ideal investigation day, interspersed with Ecuadorian meals, which are complete with Andean vegetables, white rice and tropical fruit juice, but the Amazon has a way of getting between me and my particular plans.

The plot was originally 25 hectares, which can be broken into 625 quadrants of 20 by 20 meters. I thought that would be a manageable area to survey with the help of some willing field assistants, who vary from day to day and will include my mother, other researchers looking to take a day off their own projects and a plant expert who has been working in the plot since its inception in 1994.

Day one came and we ventured into the forest after a breakfast of sliced fruit and scrambled eggs. Four hours later, we emerged from the plot, having averaged a census of about one quadrant per hour. Four of 625 potential quadrants. Though we took our time to learn the layout of the plot the first day, I decided to target some quadrants in particular due to the apparent time constraints. Perhaps the most enlightening part of my first day of field experience was learning how my mind works in the rainforest.

Thoughts that run through my mind while conducting a Heliconia census:

  1. Is that a Heliconia? Or is it an Amaranthaceae? Look for the false trunk. If I’m really lucky, I’ll see some telltale bracts.
  2. Whoa! Watch your step when you want to get a closer look or you might slide down this slope and run into a spiny Bactris palm or feel the sting of a Konga ant, but don’t step there because you don’t know how far your boot will sink in that mud puddle. Maybe you can go around the tree, but be sure to avoid the spider web. Or find a stick to knock it out of the way.
  3. Where am I? We should be in quadrant “20, 20″, but which sub 5×5 meter box is this Heliconia in? I see one pink stick right next to me, but where are the other three? How does the box line up? I’m facing North, right? Was the big tube marking the quadrant behind that tree or behind those ferns over the ridge? I can’t see it from here. Is this “3,3”?
  4. Is it just me, or is it getting darker here? Is the wind starting to whistle in the way it does before the rain comes? Okay, so it is raining now. I hear it coming. If it starts to rain harder, we should leave to avoid treefalls. But I was really hoping to census another quadrant today.

With my mind split between the above, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to census as quickly as I had hoped. I have now selected the quadrants of the plot from which I would most like the data. Collecting Heliconia census data from these sections will ensure that I have information about where Heliconia grows. The three types of topography are ridge (colina), slope (pendiente) and valley (valle). Slopes are probably the most challenging to census because Thought #2 is constantly present when on a 30-degree grade.

Before arriving, I thought that simply finding the Heliconia would be the most pressing concern. But from the beginning, my trusty guide recognized the large Heliconia leaves from a hectare away. Unfortunately, he did not know the species names.

After collecting the data in the field, differentiating between the individuals with temporary names we invented, it was time to seek the accepted names of each species we had found. Realizing that it is much easier to identify the accepted species name with the colorful bracts unique to Heliconia, we set off on a hike down the main road that services the oil well workers and machines to find some examples after lunch. We collected each unique individual along the way and took them back to the station herbarium to bolster their minimal Heliconia collection, which hadn’t been updated since 1996 when Robin Foster made his contribution. We systematically photographed the plants and readied them for the drying oven. Meanwhile, I pulled up the Field Museum guide to Peruvian Heliconia and compared the bracts.

We were able to identify a few of the species we had found in the plot, but most exciting of all was that we were making a direct contribution to the herbarium. We added two species that had previously been absent from the collection and are in the process of overstuffing the once-flimsy folder with various individuals and plant parts of seven species found around the field station, paths and plot.

That was day one. Well, it looks like I’m still in the process of earning my nickname.

“TRI Field Notes” share the stories of TRI Fellows as they conduct independent summer research throughout the tropics.  The Tropical Resources Institute (TRI) is a center at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.  For more information on research and fellowships visit http://environment.yale.edu/tri/