Large mammals, despite their size, are often difficult to observe directly in tropical forests due to their shy nature, frequent nocturnal activity cycles, and low population densities. This means indirect surveys, such as patch occupancy analysis (which relies on sightings of field signs such as tracks and droppings, rather than visual encounters), is usually required to detect species within these tropical forest ecosystems, and subsequently determine trends in their populations. Patch occupancy surveys have been successfully employed in Cusuco National Park for 13 years, and have established the presence of 23 large and medium-sized mammals, including the globally endangered Baird’s Tapir, the Red Brocket Deer, and the Collared Peccary. Students taking this option would join our long-term transectbased patch occupancy surveys, noting the presence or absence of large mammal species in 50m ‘patches’ of each transect. This patch occupancy data can then be correlated with information from our large-scale habitat datasets or satellite imagery of deforestation patterns to ascertain the key determinants of large mammal distribution patterns in Cusuco.
The forests of Central America are some of the most biologically diverse forests in the world, partly because they are the meeting point of two great faunas – those from North America and those from South America which had 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
High. You will need to hike from camp to camp for up to 5 hours over steep terrain with your backpack. For this dissertation you will also be going “off transect” which can involve some tough trekking through dense undergrowth.
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.