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Into the Jungle


Those of us who spend our workday in front of a computer screen may sometimes wish we could escape our familiar surroundings and travel the globe, looking for adventure. Like Indiana Jones, we'd encounter exotic locations, lost cities, and strange new habitats.

Ecologist Emilio Bruna, (pictured left) who knows what it's like to work in one of these environments, gives Science's Next Wave a peek into his life as a researcher in the Amazon.

Bruna, an assistant professor in the Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation at the University of Florida in Gainesville, has been traveling to the Amazon since 1997 to study how plants and animals interact. Although some may consider camping in the middle of a jungle a little scary, Bruna loves his job. "The Amazon is a spectacular place," he says. "You get to see and experience things that most people can't even imagine. I can't envision myself doing anything else."

Are you a student interested in a career in wildlife ecology? If so, read Emilio Bruna's suggestions on how to become an ecologist in MiSciNet's "For the Love of Nature".

Since ecologists study the interaction between plants, animals, and the environment, they usually have to collect samples during specific times of the year, or "field seasons." Bruna travels to Brazil twice a year, in January and July, and stays there for about 5 weeks. These periods of research are intense. Everyone in Bruna's team works hard to collect as many data as possible since Bruna doesn't have the luxury of repeating experiments after he returns home.

The hard work starts before Bruna leaves the lab, as months of planning are required to ensure a successful field season. This involves library work, buying supplies, organizing travel, gathering feedback from colleagues about the types of sampling to do, and--of course--planning the experiments themselves.

In the past, Bruna's field researchers have been undergraduate Brazilian students completing internships through several Brazilian universities, but thanks to a recent National Science Foundation grant, Bruna will bring undergraduates from the University of Florida with him beginning summer of 2005.

Emilio Bruna (right) with collaborator Ana Andrade of Brazil's BDFFP and technician Leo.

Getting There

The weather--usually hot and humid--and the presence of unrelenting mosquitoes are only some of the challenging factors to contend with in the tropical rain forest. But Bruna insists the hardest part is just getting there. "From where I am in Florida, I must take an overnight flight (10-15 hours) to Brazil," Bruna says. "Then, I must catch a couple of flight connections to Manaus, the capital of the state Amazonas and the largest city in Northern Brazil."

Upon arrival, Bruna and several of his undergraduate students load all of their field equipment into trucks and drive two hours to a remote camp. The camp is run by the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project (BDFFP), a collaborative effort administered by the Smithsonian Institution and Brazil's National Institute for Research in the Amazon, and is maintained for researchers year round. Bruna's team spends 2 weeks at a time at the camp before taking a weekend break to return to town. There they will recharge batteries, enter data into the computer, check e-mail, buy needed equipment, and head back into the forest.

Bruna says, "Once I'm there, I tend to relax. It is a peaceful environment for me. Yes, it can get very hot, but it's worth it because of where we are--pretty much the largest unbroken stretch of rain forest in the Americas."

Emilio Bruna setting up a plot to count and measure plants.

Where Basic Doesn't Mean Simple

For an ecologist, working in one of the most diverse ecosystems on Earth is always thrilling, and Bruna hopes his research will contribute to the area's conservation. "My students and I are addressing interesting and important academic questions," he notes. "What eats this particular plant species? What defends them from those herbivores? What animals are pollinating these plants? What animals are dispersing their seeds?" These questions may seem basic, but in an incredibly species-rich environment, finding the answers poses problems.

"For people working in tropical rain forests, it may take time just to identify your particular species," Bruna says. "Some may take this for granted, but it is a huge challenge. For example, we study ants that interact with several plant species, but probably 25% of the ant species that interact with these plants are unidentified. We have lots of taxonomic hurdles to overcome."

What's the Danger?

Bruna feels that the courses in tropical ecology he took at college and graduate school were a good introduction to planning an international trip of 8 to 10 weeks and to working there. From those courses he knew that "You can't just drop into these places without knowing someone there or taking a quick trip just to scope the place out and make contacts," he says.

Still, living and working in an unpopulated area also brings up personal safety issues; they are, after all, sharing space with wild, potentially dangerous animals. Bruna says he used to worry about that at first, but he doesn't anymore. It's probably more dangerous to drive on U.S. freeways, he figures, than to hike in the middle of the Amazon.

Then again, on U.S. freeways you rarely find snakes falling out of trees. Bruna's team occasionally runs into poisonous pit vipers and coral snakes, but he carries a snakebite kit with him and can radio the BDFFP staff in town to send a truck if anyone needs medical attention. There are, however, more serious concerns than wildlife. "The most troublesome things are the diseases--malaria, Leishmania, and dengue fever. I worry more about getting sick than about being eaten."

Leo and Ana setting up a plot.

More than Work ?

Bruna says he travels to Brazil because it is the only place on Earth that allows him to answer the scientific questions that interest him the most, and because the Amazon provides great opportunities for research collaboration. But there are also personal reasons for the journey. Bruna was born in Mexico, and his wife's family is from Brazil. "Brazil is a fascinating country. You don't just do biology when you go there. You listen to music, eat great food, enjoy the politics and the history of the country, and make great friends."

Bruna enjoys his field season, but finds it hard being away from his family. His wife, also a field biologist, understands his motivation but can't travel with him, at least for now. She is pregnant with their first child, which is due in September. "If my family were there, it would be a snap," he says. "I could be there forever."

Bruna admits that once his child arrives his field trips will be much shorter. Family will always come first. "Like all professionals, my wife and I will make adjustments to changes in our personal life," Bruna says. "My wife's current job doesn't require a lot of fieldwork, but when it does, I will stay with the child while she goes abroad. We are no different from other families whose jobs involve lots of travel. It's not easy. My colleagues and I struggle with this issue all the time."

Maturing As a Scientist

Bruna recalls the changes he and his team have experienced working in the Amazon over the past eight years. "The first time I went, I could barely stumble by in Portuguese," he says. "I didn't know anything about where I was, where I was going, and I couldn't recognize any of the plants or animals." Now, switching to Portuguese has become second nature. "I'm more comfortable and confident because we have a team that works like a well-oiled machine," he says. "I can really concentrate on the science now."

In addition to being an outdoorsman, people interested in a career in ecology, Bruna says, should have patience, self-confidence, a good sense of humor, the ability to improvise, and an independent streak. Bruna was a Boy Scout and believes the Boy Scout motto, "Be Prepared," is especially good advice in extreme environments. "You have to be able to think on your feet and deal with the unexpected."

Robin Arnette is editor of MiSciNet and may be reached at

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