The montane tropics of the western Hemisphere are a hotspot of biodiversity for both flora and fauna. One of the outstanding questions in ecology and evolutionary biology is how this diversity can evolve and persist. In particular, taxonomic groups with constrained morphology are predicted to have limited ability to partition resources to permit coexistence. Snakes are an excellent example of morphologically and ecologically conserved animals, with all snakes limbless and obligate predators of both invertebrate and vertebrate prey. Despite this morphological and ecological conservatism, snakes are a species-rich lineage that is especially diverse in the montane tropics. You will study morphological and ecological diversity of snakes in Cusuco National Park in northwestern Honduras. You will be involved in all aspects of the research, working with an expert herpetologist to find, identify, and study Neotropical snakes. Our research will focus on four ecologically and morphologically distinct guilds of snakes that includes 1) vipers, 2) leaf-litter dwelling/fossorial species, 3) diurnally active and cursorial snakes and 4) specialist nocturnal species. For all species within these guilds, you will measure 1) body size and morphology, 2) trophic morphology (e.g., head dimensions), 3) ecology (diet, habitat type, thermal ecology and 4) parturition status (gravidity, number of eggs or neonates). The ultimate goal of this work is to contribute to an understanding of the drivers of morphological and ecological diversity of snakes in the tropics.
The forests of Central America are some of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the world, partly because they are the meeting point of two great faunas – those from North America and those from South America – which have evolved separately. Many of these ecosystems have been badly degraded but there is a proposal to join currently discontinuous areas of forest into a continuous Mesoamerican forest corridor running from the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico (where there are other Opwall teams) to Panama. Part of this corridor will encompass the cloud forests of Cusuco National Park in Honduras – a site rich in endemics and endangered species yet threatened by unchecked illegal deforestation. The Opwall survey teams have been working in Cusuco since 2003 and the data produced has resulted in the Park being listed as one of the top 50 most irreplaceable protected areas in the world (based on a review of 173,000 sites worldwide). As well as underlining the biological value of Cusuco, the datasets collected by the Opwall teams are also being used to make an application for funding through Natural Forest Standard (NFS). This will allow carbon credits from the Park to be issued, which can then be sold to multinational companies wishing to offset their carbon emissions and at the same time help protect biodiversity. Funding obtained in this way will then be used to manage and protect the park and the many unique species it supports.
In the cloud forest of Cusuco National Park it can get warm in open areas (temperatures up to 20 degrees Celsius) but much cooler in the shade of the forest. Overnight the temperature can drop below 10 degrees Celsius at higher altitudes. It rarely rains in the morning but it regularly rains late in the afternoon and overnight.
Fitness level required
Medium – High. You will need to hike from camp to camp for up to 5 hours over steep terrain with your backpack.
Facilities in Cusuco are very basic (tents, hammocks, river showers, basic trench toilets). There is no cell phone signal in Cusuco National Park and very limited satellite internet available through a communal laptop at Base Camp.