Most people have never heard of a "tropical dry forest." Ecologist Jennifer Powers has spent over a decade studying this biome. She gave a great presentation last week at IonE's Frontiers in the Environment seminar series to spread the word.
Tropical dry forests differ from wet forests in that they have a pronounced dry season and many unique fauna and flora that have adapted to deal with the seasonality. Although the tropical dry forest biome used to account for a significant portion of forested lands in the tropics, it is now the most endangered terrestrial ecosystem. Dry forests are less well known because, during the upsurge in the tropical conservation movement, a big chunk of the forest that remained in tropical regions were wet forest. So conservationists focused in on vast expanses and passed over dry forests because the small, scraggly fragments hardly looked worth saving; why would you want to put effort and money into saving a puddle when you could save a lake?
Tropical dry forests have been regenerating, however, and Powers' research has provided a baseline understanding of dry forest succession in two of Costa Rica's national parks - Area de Conservación Guanacaste and Palo Verde. Conservation science is well known for its dismal tones, but what she found might make you smile: Tropical dry forests are regrowing. With fire management, dry forests regenerate within 40 to 50 years, although biodiversity recovery takes longer.
In addition to basic research, Powers has a palpable commitment to connecting science to communities within the province where these forests grow. The communities have a wealth of biological diversity in their backyard; investigators come from all over the world to conduct research within park boundaries. Powers is converting some of that research into ways to engage with park visitors. For example, she's organized a coloring book project that focuses on connections between communities and the Area de Conservación Guanacaste Park. Powers developed this project in collaboration with the parks educational staff. Now when elementary school children from local schools visit Area de Conservación Guanacaste, they are given a coloring book filled with ecologicalillustrations and descriptions. In the same vein, but for a different audience, Powers spearheaded a botanical identification pamphlet for visitors who want to learn the plant species within the park.
Jennifer Powers' philosophy with respect to research and outreach is that place-based investigators have an ethical responsibility to engage with the communities surrounding the areas in which they work. She summed it up succinctly as "think locally, act locally."
Moana McClellan is a Ph.D. student in plant biology and an interdisciplinary doctoral fellow with the Institute on the Environment