Insects on plants make up the majority of terrestrial macro-diversity and underpin tropical ecosystems. While some insects provide vital pollination services, others are antagonistic herbivores. In response to herbivory plants have developed a bewildering array of chemical defences, and insects must contend with a complex landscape of toxic plant compounds (e.g. polyphenols, alkaloids and terpenes). This in turn has led to the evolution of specialisation of insect herbivores onto groups of closely related and chemically similar plants. The alkaloids contained in the coffee family (Rubiaceae) are consumed by humans for their stimulant and hallucinogenic effects. One of the largest genera in the family is Psychotria (>2,000 species); as such it has become a model for studying the evolution of plant defences and insect diversity. This project aims to study insect herbivores associated with the 15 local species of Psychotria found in Cusuco. Approaches can include insect surveys and focused feeding experiments connecting to large datasets from Panama. A separate project can focus on both the wild relatives of coffee and the abandoned coffee gardens within the national park. How great is the overlap in insect community structure between forest habitats and the coffee plantations of Buenos Aires? There is also further scope to study other large tropical genera such as Miconia and Piper which are both locally abundant and chemically diverse.
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.