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I am interested in ecological and evolutionary interactions, for which I work with different systems. Two of my main systems are bromeliads and false-bird-of-paradise plants.

 

Both systems offer fantastic tropical microcosms in which to study plant-invertebrate interactions.

Epiphytic Bromeliads

Bromeliads are neotropical* plants, many of which live in the canopy, growing on trees without parasitising them. As well as providing us with pineapples, being popular house plants across the world and an (introduced) garden favourite in Australia, they have important ecological roles in the neotropical habitats they are native to.

 

Many share a morphological blueprint, whereby their long strappy leaves are arranged in an overlapping rosette pattern, leaving a space in the centre, known as a tank or phytotelm (pl. phytotelmata). The spaces in the centre and between the leaves of bromeliads gather water and debris from the canopy – which make perfect homes for many animals. They form little floating ecosystems, complete with nutrient cycling microbes and photosynthesising algae. I am using epiphytic bromeliads to study the genetics of plant-bacteria-invertebrate interactions. This study is part of my PhD research and is taking place in San José de Payamino, in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

* Only one of the 3,500+ species of bromeliad is native to the African continent; elsewhere, they are introduced.

 

A bromeliad phytotelm (not my species). Photo by X. O'Reilly Berkeley

Collecting bromeliads up a tree. Photo by J. Malumbres-Olarte

FALSE-BIRDS-OF-PARADISE

False-birds of paradise plants refer to members of the Heliconiaceae family; they are native to the neotropics and have brightly coloured inflorescences, which make them popular among horticulturalists. Not to be confused with the much less diverse birds-of-paradise plants (same order, Zingiberales, but different family, Strelitzaceae), or namesakes birds-of-paradise (actual birds, family Paradisaeidae).

 

The hard bright bracts of Heliconia inflorescences house their comparatively drab little flowers and the erect varieties usually accumulate water in these bracts. In other words, they are also phytotelmata, although much smaller ones than those of most tank bromeliads. Like bromeliad phytotelmata, Heliconia bracts house communities of invertebrates, albeit more transitory and less diverse ones. Because most Heliconia are disturbance plants, they grow quickly from a horizontal stem underground (rhizome), making them excellent models for planted experiments in the rainforest. I have planted over a hundred individual Heliconia stricta in common garden plots in the rainforest to study the genetics of plant-bacteria-invertebrate interactions, in a more controlled yet in-situ environment. This study is part of my PhD research and is taking place in San José de Payamino, in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

 

Heliconia stricta inflorescence. Photo by J. Malumbres-Olarte

Section of one of the forest plots in Payamino. Photo by X. O'Reilly Berkeley

Amazonian Mammals

While completing my undergraduate degree at the University of Manchester (UK), I spent a year on industrial placement at the Timburi Cocha Research Station, Payamino, in the Ecuadorian Amazon. During my time there, I conducted a camera trap study aiming to highlight differences in the medium and large mammal community between primary and secondary forest. Payamino is part of a semi-protected area, owned and used by an indigenous Kichwa community. The primary forest of the region is mature and subject to very little human disturbance. The secondary forests have grown back from areas cleared for crops and houses, and they are usually still frequented by people – either with maintained trails or selectively weeded.

I am currently trying to publish this data, while hoping to repeat and expand this study.

 

A cheeky brocket deer (Mazama americana)

A rare image of a Catalan-Irish ape in the Amazon Rainforest

Content © Sara-Xaali O'Reilly Berkeley, 2019.
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