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Conducting Annual Mortality Surveys in the ForestGEO Network (amid a Global Pandemic)

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has indefinitely delayed many researchers’ attempts to conduct fieldwork, but global partnerships and new safety protocols have allowed some fieldwork to continue in the ForestGEO network.  Specifically, field crews are currently undertaking annual mortality surveys at Amacayacu (Colombia), Yasuní (Ecuador), Barro Colorado Island (Panama), & Pasoh (Malaysia) Forest Dynamics Plots.  In this way, our network mirrors the modular nature of trees, where crisis in one limb does not automatically spell disaster for the rest of the tree.  

Since 2016, field crews have conducted annual mortality surveys (AMS) at eight ForestGEO plots across the tropics.  The cumulative impact is a more detailed understanding of how tree damage leads to tree death, a critical factor in estimating biomass fluxes in tropical forests.  In their new paper, Gabriel Arellano, Daniel Zuleta, and Stuart Davies present a detailed protocol for undertaking such surveys.  They also explain their methodological decisions and provide a plethora of diagrams to keep assessments objective and consistent across censuses.  Researchers can access the protocol for fieldwork and example datasheets in both Spanish and English on the Tree Mortality & Damage page of ForestGEO’s website. 

Figure caption below.
Figure 8 from Arellano, Zuleta, & Davies illustrates the most common states of trees in tropical forests. 

Amacayacu’s AMS typically requires two crews, each with one leader and the support of two co-workers.  But fieldwork is not typically conducted amid a global pandemic.  This year, only one crew will participate in the census in order to reduce the amount of people that each participant encounters.  The leader resides in the field station for the duration of the census, and co-workers commute to the plot every day from their homes in the Palmeras Indigenous community, which is generally isolated from other populations.  To date, there have been no COVID cases at the Amacayacu field station.

Photo caption below.
The Amacayacu AMS field crew (from left to right): Andrés F. Jiménez, Eugenio Sánchez, Felizberto Melendez. Photo credit: Andrés F. Jiménez

Two of Amacayacu’s three-member field crew were active in last year’s AMS, reducing the amount of time (and the need for in-person) training.  As such, Daniel Zuleta was able to offer a virtual refresher course, showing the crew photos of specific trees and quizzing them on how they would record the status in the census.  When the crew needs a consult for a particularly difficult tree, they follow the example of telemedicine and share a photo or video with Daniel via WhatsApp, where he is able to remotely offer his assessment.  Daniel offers this same support to crews at Yasuní and BCI.

Under the coordination of Dr. Renato Valencia (PI), there are two crews collaborating at Yasuní to carry out its AMS.  All members must receive a negative COVID test before they are able to board a chartered bus that takes them to the field station, where they will stay throughout their 15-day shifts.  The two-week shifts are nothing new.  Quito, the nearest city to Yasuní, is about 15 hours away, making regular commutes impracticable.   During pandemic times, however, these two-week shifts both safeguard the field crew from new exposure and provide a source of income to workers whose jobs have overwhelmingly evaporated. 

Collaborating with local partners has been a hallmark of ForestGEO’s methodology from the very beginning.  It’s an important feature of making science more equitable and inclusive.  And in month twelve of a public health crisis, it’s also allowing data collection to continue.