This topic allows students to work on one of the longest running large-scale invertebrate ecology research projects in the Neotropics, studying the fantastically diverse dung beetles of Cusuco. The project could focus on how diversity and community structure changes over a complex matrix of elevational and habitat gradients by adapting our existing sampling programme to set up experimental plots. There may also be the opportunity to investigate aspects of ecological genetics, or to utilise GIS in analysing local biogeography of dung beetles. Projects could involve analysing community data from the sampling programme in relation to the habitat structure measurements, or working with data from multiple teams to assess the role that dung beetles play as indicators of forest quality or the occurrence of other species. Dung beetles also play a vital role in decomposition in the forest and in seed dispersal and the impacts and effectiveness of these roles could be tested using various experimental designs. Alternatively, a project could focus on finding out more about some of the beetle species to assess how far they travel to their food source using mark and recapture methods, or to study aspects of dung beetle ecology such as diet activity or feeding preferences.
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
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.