Czech scientists to explore bug-life in tropical treetops

Photo: archive of the Czech Academy of Sciences

For twenty years now, a team of Czech scientists has been studying insects in the tropical rainforests of Papua New Guinea. Recently, they received over 90 million crowns from the European Research Centre to study the influence of insects on forest vegetation in New Guinea and other countries, including Japan, Panama and Ghana. The project also involves erecting a huge crane right in the middle of the New Guinean tropical forest in order to explore its canopy.

Vojtěch Novotný,  photo: archive of the Czech Academy of Sciences
Just a fortnight before his departure for New Guinea, I spoke to Professor Vojtěch Novotný of the Czech Academy of Sciences, who is heading the research team. I first asked him how Czech scientists became involved in the research of tropical rainforests:

“Tropical rainforests are a very important subject of ecological research. They offer the largest concentration of species diversity we have in terrestrial ecosystems. Naturally, this is an attractive field for biologists. It is important for theoretical ecology, it is important for conservation of species. So it’s a big topic in ecology in general.

“Of course the Czech Republic not only doesn’t have any rainforests but there also is no colonial history. So it might seem a little strange at first glance, but in fact when you are an ecologist, you are not looking at problems within your own country, but globally, in terms of what’s important for science.

“Astronomers are not gazing at stars only above the Czech Republic but they are looking at the whole Universe. Likewise, Czech ecologists are looking everywhere. And New Guinea is actually the third largest rainforest area we have left in the tropics.”

So what is the aim of your project?

“Simply told, we would like to better understand the rainforests. The big puzzle in biology is that rainforests look sort of unnatural to us. They look like a zoological and botanical garden combined together.

“Almost every tree in a rainforest belongs to a different species. Almost every insect you come across is yet another species. And that sort of feels wrong, because ecological theory expects that the species most adapted to local environment out-compete the others.

“And that’s exactly what is happening in European systems. We have beech forests and oak forests, which are named after the dominant tree species. But there are no dominant tree species in a rainforest. So we are trying to explain the strange phenomenon: what is keeping any of the species from becoming dominant in the ecosystem.”

“Our ecosystems can be seen as simplified versions of the tropical ones. If you understand the complicated system of the tropical forest it also helps you to understand the dynamics of our ecosystem.”

How can the Czech Republic benefit from the research? We don’t have any tropical rainforests in this country…

“Our ecosystems can be seen as simplified versions of the tropical ones. If you understand the complicated system of the tropical forest it also helps you to understand the dynamics of our ecosystem. “And we are certainly far from understanding the insect-plant and the animal-plant relationships in our own forests. For instance the controversy about Šumava national park is partly political and partly conservational, but it is also biological. Predicting the dynamics of a forest is still a challenge.”

One of the aims of your team is to specify the number of insect species in the world. How many new species have you discovered throughout your career?

“Well it is a bit embarrassing for biology, but we don’t know. We simply don’t know how many insect species there are in a local rainforest and how many there are globally. Even our studies are only extrapolations and estimates. We are very far from cataloguing all species.

“That also means that if you take a walk in a rainforest you actually encounter hundreds of new species unknown to science. In some groups, especially of small insets, such as parasitical wasps, which are very poorly studied, a huge majority of species is actually undescribed.

“So it is very easy to find new species. And it is actually not the main point of what we are doing. For us it is more of a nuisance that the species we are dealing with are not properly scientifically described.”

Your team recently received a 92 million crown grant from the European Research Council. What will you use this money for?

Photo: archive of the Czech Academy of Sciences
“We will be studying the interactions between plants and insects in the forests. We will be looking at how insect respond to the changes in the composition of vegetation but also how they can actually influence the composition of forests. They can influence certain trees differently from others and that can change the balance of the species composition of the forests.

“We will be trying to answer the question of how important insects are. What would happen in a forest if suddenly, by some magic, all insects disappeared? Would it be just business as usual or would the forest change completely?

“So these questions will be studied at a global network of three temperate zone forests, in the Czech Republic, Japan and the US, and the corresponding tropical forests, in New Guinea, Gabon and Panama.”

You are planning to build a huge crane to get to the treetops. Can you tell me more about that?

“It is so far the best way ecologists have to access the canopies of tropical forests. These canopies are sometimes called the last biological frontier. That’s simply because the most important things happening in tropical forests take place in the canopy.

“At the same time it is very difficult to work there. We don’t need just to get there, which you can do by climbing, but we need to do experiments and measurements there.

“So one solution is to take a standard construction crane, used for the construction of high-rise buildings, and put it right in the middle of a tropical forest. And then, instead of lifting bricks you lift a gondola with a researcher and gain access to approximately one or two hectares of the forest.

“I should also say that the crane will be built in Papua New Guinea and there are only nine cranes operating so far in temperate zone and tropical forests.”

How long have you been going to Papua New Guinea and how much time do you spend there?

“New Guinea is really the centre of our studies. We have been there for twenty years. We have built a small research institute there with local and international staff, with a field station, and I usually spend about half the time in New Guinea and half the time in the Czech Republic.”

So you started going there twenty years ago?

“Yes, we actually have a twenty years’ anniversary in May this year. We started on very small scale, as these projects do. It was originally a very short visit. But one thing led to another and we ended up building a relatively large field station there and transforming this area into our main focus of research.”

“The collaboration with the indigenous people can be extremely efficient, because these people have grown in the rainforest, they know it, they are at home there.”

So you actually spent several years of your life there…

“Yes, about ten years.”

What is your experience of working there?

“Well, it has a reputation. It always catches peoples’ interest when you tell them that you work in Papua New Guinea as opposed to working in Panama, Costa Rica, Malaysia, and other tropical countries.

“It is extremely important for biologists, but it is also very interesting culturally. It’s a functioning democracy of parliamentary type, but at the same time it is very much a tribal society.

“So there is this interesting combination of rainforest dwelling tribes with lots of elements of tribal life and at the same time having a modern state and research.”

Do you cooperate with the locals? What is this cooperation like?

“Yes, we do. First, it is necessary, because they are the ones who own the rainforest. The country recognises indigenous ownership by law. So the indigenous people own the entire country, basically. So even with a governmental permit for research, you can’t do anything in the forest without local people.

“That forces you to work with the local people, which is a good thing, because you find out that despite initial difficulties, which are inevitable due to the different cultural backgrounds and different way of life, the collaboration can be extremely efficient, because these people have grown in the rainforest, they know it, they are at home there.

“That sort of knowledge is invaluable, despite the fact that they do not have a formal education in ecology and biology. We do have this formal education so we combine it with their experience and it really makes for a very efficient research team. And it is also great fun. You get people from very different backgrounds, so it is definitely not boring.”

Did you have to overcome some serious cultural differences?

“Yes, to some extent. When people believe in witchcraft causing illness, when people go to tribal wars, it may be a bit strange to combine it with research work.

Photo: archive of the Czech Academy of Sciences
“At the same time, when you go below the exotic surface of the society, you find out that the principles of societies are the same everywhere. So collaboration is definitely possible.”

Are there any health risks? As far as I know, you have come down with malaria…

“Tropical countries are very biologically rich and that of course applies to parasitical diseases as well. It is well known that there are medical risks combined with less than ideal medical care. At the same time, I think these risks are often exaggerated.

“I would say that nowadays, with medical science as it is, the general criminality and violence is actually a bigger problem, not only in Papua New Guinea but also in most tropical countries, than the biological risks. But the risks are there, malaria is everywhere and there are other tropical diseases as well. That’s true.”

When do you set off for another expedition?

“Well, I no longer call it an expedition. For me, it’s just another day in the office. And I will be there two weeks from now.”