Voices From The Ridge

By Sarah Fitzpatrick

 

The bulldozers claw into the mountainside while groggy-eyed we sip on coffee and begin our early mornings. The growling machinery is almost unnoticeable to us — a constant backdrop we nearly forget until our daydreams are shattered by one of their dynamite explosions. The earth crumbles into gravel that the sign boasts only goes for 78 TT$ per metric ton (13 USD$). Meanwhile, we prepare for the field, pack our lunches, and discuss the day’s projects over the roar and rumbling. The ground shakes beneath our shoes and rattles our chests, yet in the frenzy of our work, we almost forget the reality of what a thin curtain of Cecropia and Balsa trunks hide from us.

 

 

We live and work out of the William Beebe Tropical Research Station, perched on a ridge in the Northern Range Mountains of the island of Trinidad. This one hundred year building, one of the oldest field stations on the globe, is fondly known to us as Simla.

These walls tell stories. Simla’s hallways echo a rich history spanning seven decades of pioneering scientific research and discovery. World-famous explorer, naturalist, author and adventurer William Beebe first came to Trinidad in 1949 and fell in love. He was the first man to the bottom of the ocean, discovering an undersea universe never before described to science. Travelling to far-flung corners of the world for the New York Zoological Society, Beebe wrote prolifically about his expeditions and discoveries. At the end of his wandering-bootheels life, it was in his home he called Simla (so named after visiting India’s ‘summer capital’ in the Himalayas), nested in the foothills of the Northern Range, where he wanted to be when he died.

William Beebe responded to the wonder of these mountains and uncovered many treasures here. He recognized both the scientific and aesthetic value of the diverse array of floras and faunas isolated on the northernmost tip of the Andes that broke off from mainland South America 11,000 years ago, and he claimed a large swath of land as a nature preserve, now owned and managed by Asa Wright Nature Center. Of the many things he stood for, William Beebe whole-heartedly believed that Trinidad’s biodiversity is spectacularly unique and therefore worth honoring with preservation and research.

Intrigue and strong emotion towards wild organisms is innate in every culture, but the ways in which that energy is harnessed varies depending on welfare, upbringing, and education. It is an unquestionable luxury to visit Trinidad and explore its streams and valleys with the goal of pursuit of knowledge, as we do. And this is precisely what William Beebe designed his preserve for — the chance to delve into these awe-inspiring landscapes and gain the scientific and educational benefits through their exploration.

Purple honeycreeper. Photo credit: Alisha Shah.

Since the inception of Simla as a tropical research station in the early 1950s hundreds of scientists from across the world have convened here to utilize its facilities and its access to the Northern Range. The tall ceilings and hardwood floors lend antique character to the station and elaborate on its wisdom. The double doors open to oropendulas, bananaquits, tanagers, and honeycreepers. If you study the treetops you may notice the Violaceous Trogon, Lineated woodpecker, or Channel-billed Toucan.

Of the vast research that has taken place at Simla, many examples have been ground breaking. Lincoln and Jane Van Zandt Brower, founders of the field of chemical ecology, studied insect use of plant chemicals to deter predators in the backyard of Simla. Paul Ehrlich and Lawrence Gilbert conducted mark-recapture studies on local populations of Heliconius butterflies garnering important data on the relatively stable demography of a tropical insect species (compared to those in temperate climates). D.W. and B.K Snow, based out of Simla, conducted extensive field work throughout the Northern Range, emanating much of what we now know about Trinidad’s ornithology.

Guppies. Photo credit: Paul Bentzen.

In the 1960s Caryl Haskins noticed variability in color patterns among male guppies in the freshwater streams of Trinidad. He discovered that this variation consistently corresponded to distributions of guppy predators throughout the island. Guppies existing in low predation environments upstream of water fall barriers show drastic phenotypic differences compared to their counterparts in the low elevation streams that coexist with a suite of predators. In 1974 John Endler began work at Simla and expanded on Haskin’s research, positing that male guppy coloration is a balance between sexual selection and predation pressure, and founded the field of sensory ecology. Shortly thereafter, David Reznick joined the team of guppy researchers, conducting pivotal research on life history evolution.

Sarah Fitzpatrick fishing for guppies.

Altogether, Simla has hosted some of the most important experimental tests of evolutionary theory in nature, several of which led to the establishment of new subdisciplines in science. Guppy research remains highly active today as we are now all here studying the interaction between ecological and evolutionary processes following a controlled manipulation of wild populations and the environment. This research will, for the first time, shed light on the reciprocal feedbacks between ecology and evolution in a natural setting. The scale of collaboration and involvement in this project is exponential. Post-docs, professors, graduate students, undergraduates, research technicians, and volunteers continuously cycle in and out of Simla throughout the year. Whether there to design a PhD thesis, work as a field assistant, conduct an independent project, coordinate monthly guppy mark-recapture, or simply to lend a hand, the rotating flux of scientists at all stages, with a wide range of interests, creates an active and dynamic Simla community.

It’s four o’clock and the flock of Yellow-crowned Parrots make their racket as they flap across the sky. So far, they’ve never missed a day. Life at this field station is as fragile and complex as the ecosystems we study. The group personality is a sum of parts balancing act, and its mood changes unpredictably. We are a mix of ages, nationalities, experience levels, and personal histories. The extreme variety in our music tastes is a reflection of what different people we all are. From bluegrass to spanish pop to Bob Dylan to heavy metal; we teach each other about tolerance. The close quarters require us to learn about each other in ways that rarely happen on the mainland. Human experience intensifies in all dimensions. In a few short weeks the shared experiences, lengthy conversations, and days in and out spent together form strangely thick connections. Some of us are addicts to this way.

As our work and lives progress here, the quarries’ bulldozers eat the future of Simla out from under it. Owned and managed by Asa Wright Nature Center, Simla’s long term prognosis is rumored to be sold to the quarry. Birders flock from all over the world to stay at Asa Wright and experience the ornithological wonders of the Northern Range. Though their mission clearly states that a top priority is to use their resources to promote conservation through education and research, a short sighted business deal threatens to turn a historic research hub and scientific monument into limestone dust.

This is not a pointing fingers game. Making scientific progress on soil and streams that are not our own, as international researchers our shoulders share the responsibility. Back home we present at conferences, publish journal articles, and invent or revise theory thanks to the wealth of knowledge gained by experimentation and study in Trinidad. Yet a glaring hole exists at Simla, namely the lack of local involvement in the large scale international research projects carried out here. We are all students of the Northern Range yet there is a noticeable lack of students from the Northern Range. Field stations within the United States are places where school kids hold their first snake and learn to wonder about its novel adaptations for life without legs instead of fearing its cold blood. Amateur naturalists design experiments, test hypotheses, and realize their passion could be more than hobby. Undergraduates are trained to become wildlife biologists or fisheries managers. Land ethics are philosophized and engrained.

After decades of research conducted by non-Trindadian scientists, that there isn’t a well-developed structure for the training and involvement of local biologists is embarrassing. The havoc caused by quarries sprouting up throughout the Northern Range is not a problem that the scientists who work here wish to take on. It’s not our backyard, it’s not our mountaintops being blown to bits. We shake our heads, wondering why someone can’t do something about the devastation, then sidestep around torn apart slopes and continue to collect data.

Nightfall, the machinery rests. Quarry workers take their trucks home and leave the silhouette of exposed limestone contrasted against the night sky. The potoo awakens from its stationary post and sings five mournful, musical notes. Tungara frogs build bubble nests and partake in their love song chorus while a light rain echos on the tin roof of the stove room as dinner simmers. Someone finds a cat eyed snake under the couch where we gather in the evening to stretch our legs and tell stories about the time a bush master false struck at an ankle on the trail, or where to find the best mango tree in Trinidad.

This home is more than keepsake. A wise man said history is about the blending of timelines. We will not ever recreate what Simla used to be when William Beebe held his Victorian style parties on his veranda, his tropical garden ever-blooming. We’ll never look out on the view from this ridge without stands of invasive asian bamboo and without noticing the carnage of the quarry. Just like we will not ever experience a Northern Range brimming with Ocelots, Scarlet Macaws and the endemic Pawi, as it once was. But there is something to be said for Beebe’s notion of preservation of historical treasure. The research that continues throughout the Northern Range reveals more to the scientific community today thanks to the well-laid foundation of understanding put down by pioneers like William Beebe, David Snow, and Caryl Haskins. Residing under Simla’s roof inspires greater creativity and introspection knowing the great minds that walked these halls before us. There are still bricks to be put in place. The names of Trinidadian scientists must become part of the narrative. Their students will come to Simla and add their stories to the mix. As the quarry dismantles history little by little, our voices from our home on the ridge must persist.

Sarah Fitzpatrick is a PhD student studying Evolutionary Ecology at Colorado State University.