As a PhD student and CEES researcher, Cassie Freund is studying how natural disturbances—such as landslides in the Peruvian Andes—shape forest ecology and impact tree species distribution, nutrient and water flows, and carbon storage.

From dressing for the occasion to forging new paths with a machete, Freund shares a glimpse into being a researcher in the Andes.  

by Cassie Freund, PhD Student

Getting dressed for a day of field work in the Peruvian Andes can occasionally feel like getting ready for battle. At the higher elevations where the weather is unpredictable, I tend to wear everything in pairs. First, two shirts, usually both long sleeved in an attempt to stay somewhat warm. Then, I put on leggings and hiking pants—for warmth and in attempt to stay somewhat clean. The finishing touches are two pairs of socks, a rain jacket, and the requisite pair of rubber field boots.

Dressing for any kind of weather is especially important when you spend your days as my field team does: exposed to the elements on mountainsides that have been totally stripped of their original cloud forest vegetation by landslides, the most common natural disturbance in this part of the Andes. The intact forest that blankets the surrounding areas tends to mediate the daily highs and lows, but in the open areas at 2,500 – 3,500 meters above sea level, we spend our days oscillating between basking in the blazing sunshine and freezing when the cloud layer comes in. To top it all off, we often have to machete new paths through the forest to get to our study site in Manu National Park (affectionately referred to by everyone who works here simply as “Trocha,” the Spanish word for trail). This usually involves crawling over and under fallen vegetation while fending off a variety of spiny plants, making the multiple layers of protective clothing even more necessary.

Given all of these challenges, one could be forgiven for wondering why anyone would want to study these landslides. Natural disturbances are an important factor shaping forest ecology and can have significant impacts on tree species distributions, nutrient and water flows, and carbon storage. Landslides are ubiquitous in the Andes, and can be very large; one in our study site covers over 100,000 square meters.

My fieldwork this summer involves sampling the vegetation on landslides of a range of sizes and ages across a 2000-meter elevational gradient. This will allow us to begin to piece together how forest regeneration after landslides occurs, the diversity of plants that can grow on disturbed slopes, and whether or not species depend on landslides to persist in the landscape. While landslides are a common disturbance, there are few studies to date that examine the role of landslides in the Andean forest ecosystem. That being said, there still a lot to learn.

Although the work is physically demanding, we are routinely rewarded with amazing views and the knowledge that we are literally standing where no other humans have ever ventured.

This first field season of my PhD is quickly drawing to a close and soon I’ll be back at Wake Forest with a mountain of data entry and analysis ahead of me. It’s been a successful season thanks especially to the hard work of my two field assistants, Rachel Jordan from Appalachian State University and Flor María Pérez Mullisaca from Cusco.