An Interview with Ashley Anne Colewick (by Laura Wells)
9 September 2010
Ashley Anne Colewick is Fauna Forever's insect research coordinator, and Laura Wells is Fauna Forever's social media intern
Ashley: Hi Laura!
Laura: Hi Ashley. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me. Let’s start with a brief background to yourself?
Ashley: Okay, well I went to Drake University, that’s in Des Moines, the capital of Iowa, and I studied environmental science, environmental politics and biology. I focused mainly on conservation biology and restoration ecology, but I also studied entomology and botany. I have always been really interested in rainforests and tallgrass prairies.
Laura: Is that why you chose to work in the Madre de Dios region of the Amazon?
Ashley: Yes partly, previous to working for Greenpeace as an activist I had done quite a bit of research in the tallgrass prairies of the US and had always wanted to come to the Amazon. I did a little bit of research and was astounded by the diversity of the Tambopata area in Peru and its important place in the research of many scientists that I have always admired such as Terry Irwin, E.O. Wilson and David Pearson. Coming from a background in butterfly research, I was excited to study and live in an area that had broken butterfly alpha diversity records. Aside from that, I find this part of the Amazon really interesting with the interface of conservation, native agriculture, tourism and the development surrounding the Inter-Oceanic Highway.
Laura: Wow, I didn’t realise it had broken those records! So how long have you been working for Fauna Forever?
Ashley: Well, last fall I met the Principal Investigator (Chris Kirkby), when I was working as a resident naturalist at Explorer’s Inn, and through a couple of conversations we decided that I would join the organisation and create an insect team, so that’s what I did in January 2011.
Laura: What did that involve?
Ashley: I have always been interested in the idea of using indicator species to measure biodiversity. So I started some research based on testing whether or not a family of butterflies (The glass wing butterfly – Ithomiinae) could be used as an indicator species. At all the stations and lodges Fauna Forever visit, I have established transects in different forest types including local farms, virgin floodplain forest and secondary floodplain forest. I sample butterflies in these forests, identify them, try to figure out the species richness of them and find out if they can be used as indicator species. Of course while doing this I have volunteers join me, I train them in the methodology, identification of the butterfly species and insect preservation techniques.
Laura: Could you describe a typical day of yours?
Ashley: A typical day is; from 8 till 1, I walk transects with any volunteers who have been assigned to my team - catching all of the butterfly individuals that we see. We also check traps that I’ve hung from trees and baited with a fermenting and rotting fruit mixture (shown below). In the afternoons, we spend time identifying the butterflies that we have caught that day using and amalgamation of photos, guides and keys. We usually release most of the butterflies that we catch but I keep a voucher of each species that is caught. The collection is being donated to CORBIDI, a non-profit organisation based in Lima, Peru. As well as that, of course I spend a lot of time with data spread sheets on the laptop.
Laura: So do you know what your research shows yet?
Ashley: I am in the middle of data analysis at the moment, and my data has shown interesting things, for instance at one lodge the species richness in one set of virgin (old growth) floodplain forest transects, there is an Ithomiinae species richness of 17 and in a neighbouring set of transects in secondary growth floodplain forest (which had previously been cut down and is now regrowing) there is only a species richness of 6. That's quite a difference.
Laura: Oh it’s good that your data seems like it’s conclusive then, and am I right in thinking that you’ve almost finished your project?
Ashley: Yes, I am completing my project to return to North America and I am moving to Canada, which will be a new home for me. There I will begin my Masters studies, which is funded by the Canadian government and I will be developing a conservation plan of an endangered butterfly, the Morman Metalmark (Apodemia mormo mejicanus). I am also going to be studying the effect of its host plant chemistry on the suitability for the over position.
Laura: Are you planning to publish the project you did while at Fauna Forever?
Ashley: Yes hopefully, once we get solid statistical results, I hope to publish it in a journal such as Tropical Ecology, it will be the first publication that I will publish as first author and I am really nervous and excited to write it.
Laura: That is exciting! Good luck with that. On a slightly different note, what do you consider to be the biggest threat to the rainforest?
Ashley: Oh that’s a tough one, there are so many threats to the rainforest but I think the biggest hope for the rainforest is people realising that intact rainforests have myriad benefits for us and I think the future of protection lies in a combination of properly using conservation dollars, sustainable ecotourism and carbon credits.
Laura: I totally agree. Okay enough about work! I want to hear about your experiences in the jungle now. You spend so much studying butterflies, do you have a favourite?
Ashley: Of course! It belongs to the family Biblidinae, and it’s called the Nessaea obrinus (Obrinus olivewing). It’s pretty common but I like the way it’s all green on the outside and a combination of blacks and blues on the inside, which you don’t normally see in the natural world.
Laura: Sounds cool. What’s the funniest moment you’ve had with Fauna Forever?
Ashley: Oh there are a few; one was getting lost at Sachavacayoc Centre for amost of one whole day. Another is bundled up cuddle-fests during a cold friaje and Sophia (our mammal coordinator) waking me up and crawling into bed with me because it was so cold!
Laura: Oh yes, I heard about the friaje – I hadn’t got to Puerto Maldonado by then so luckily I missed it! Okay, what about the scariest moment you’ve had with Fauna Forever?
Ashley: It’s difficult to say what the scariest is but the top three mostly involve rats – one time, we were camping at Lake Cocococha at Explorer’s Inn, I woke up and there was a rat crawling on my mosquito net right above my head! Another time Elisban, a native of the Tambopata jungle with an awesome knowledge of traditional medicines, decided that I had Dengue fever, and had prepared the native cure for me, which is like 20 different plants all boiled up. So I took a sponge baths using this water and woke up during the night with hallucinations that loads of rats were crawling over me. Oh and the first time I swam in the Tambopata I got bitten by a piraña – I was so scared that I couldn’t talk!
Laura: Oh dear – none of that sounds very nice! Since you’re leaving us soon, what’s the thing you’ll miss most about the jungle?
Ashley: I think I’d have to say the boat rides here, especially to TRC (a tourist lodge with a research station attached) and CICRA (another research station) because they are a whole day away and quite remote, which means you get some amazing views of wildlife up close. Also I’ll miss living without cell phones in peoples’ faces all the time and technology interrupting things. I used to be a cell phone addict and I’m recovering now! Oh and I’ll miss when I’m walking through the jungle and all of a sudden there’s a vine or a tree that’s flowering and it smells better than any cologne I’ve ever smelt.
Laura: The boat ride to CICRA was lovely. Could you share with us the weirdest moment you’ve had while working with Fauna Forever?
Ashley: Kim and I were walking at TRC and I thought ‘oh my gosh, some of the tourists are being so loud!’ – it turned out we were in the middle of about 300 trumpeters (birds of the genus Psophia).
Laura: Wow, I haven’t seen any of those yet. What about the coolest thing you’ve seen in the jungle?
Ashley: Probably a three-toed sloth (Bradypus variegatus, Bradypodidae) at Sachavacayoc Centre (a field station owned by Newton College in Lima), because it’s my favourite animal. It was also my nickname – the native name for sloth, which is "pelejita", because I look like a little sloth apparently. Oh and the Giant otters (Pteronura brasiliensis) at Cocococha Lake, because although they’re pretty easy to find, they have so much personality.
Laura: Those otters are pretty cool for sure! Many thanks for your time Ashley, and enjoy the rest of your time here in Peru.
Ashley: Thanks and besitos to all my friends in Tambopata and Madre de Dios who know me!