Brightly coloured and deadly coral snakes and their harmless mimics are some of the most striking denizens of Cusuco National Park. The primary driver of this type of bright coloration is convergent evolution, where natural selection impels distantly-related organisms towards a shared phenotype. Biologists have long been fascinated by how selection can cause organisms to converge on a single phenotype despite different developmental and genetic backgrounds and being separated by millions of years of evolution. Mimicry is one of the most dramatic examples of convergent evolution and in particular, coral snake mimicry is a powerful example of Batesian mimicry, which occurs when a harmless species resembles a harmful species for a protective purpose. Coral snakes are dangerous venomous elapid snakes that are usually brightly coloured and banded. Across the geographical range of coral snakes, and sometimes outside of their geographical range, harmless snakes mimic coral snakes with the same coloured crossbands. For this project, we will study the ecological and evolutionary dynamics of coral snake mimicry in Cusuco National Park, which is home to at least two coral snake species and nine coral snake mimicking species. Dissertation students will participate in all aspects of this project (except that venomous snakes will only be handled by a trained herpetologist), which will include 1) using spectrophotometry or full-spectrum photography to quantify colour of coral snakes, mimics, and non-mimicking snakes, 2) characterising the ecological and habitat distributions of coral snakes and mimics, and 3) using plasticine models to test for predation rates on different coral snake and coral snake mimic banding patterns.
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.