Biodiversity Wizardry in Honduras: an interview with Dr. Merlijn Jocqué

One week in Cusuco National Park was more than enough to fundamentally change my perception of Honduras. Before coming to this cloud forest in the Merendon mountain range, all that came to my mind when thinking about this part of the world was lowland rainforest, jaguars, and hot, humid temperatures. Instead, on the way to the park, driving up a winding dirt road on the back of a battered pickup truck, I found myself surrounded by massive pines, large tree ferns, white dense fog and a rather chilly temperature. The whole thing made me feel like I was just entering Jurassic Park.

It was the start of a two month expedition run by Operation Wallacea, an organization that brings schools and university students to the jungle to witness first hand conservation research and learn about ecology and biodiversity. It was in Basecamp, the headquarters of the expedition, that I first met Dr. Merlijn Jocqué, and I soon found out that he was considered the local biodiversity wizard, which was rather fitting considering his name and his Harry Potter style glasses.

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I got the chance to learn more about Dr. Jocqué´s research during my time in Cusuco, but mostly I was struck at how approachable and enthusiastic he was at everything that was going on. Often, when anyone had a question about conservation research, ecology, or the Neotropics in general, someone would always say “You should ask Merlijn”, or “Has anyone seen Merlijn?”.

These vast amounts of knowledge come from Dr. Jocqué´s career in biodiversity research, which started with his PhD in freshwater community ecology at the University of Leuven in Belgium, and then kept going: “After my PhD I have build out an independent research career looking at mechanisms driving diversity patterns while performing Post Docs at several institutes. I started at the Museum of Auckland in New Zealand looking at marine crustaceans.” And going…”Afterwards, I worked at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences as a wetland biologist, then as a Field Biologist in the Comoros with the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust performing biodiversity surveys for a short while.”

Wait, there is still more… “I continued with a post doc at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences working on metacommunity dynamics of ostracods in bromeliads and a post doc at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey furthering ongoing research.” At his point I was pretty much convinced he was indeed a wizard, and had Hermione´s weird clock thing that turned back time and allowed her to take all those extra classes.

Coming back to Honduras, Dr. Jocqué is looking at the bromeliads here. Before, the only plants of this type I had seen were the small potted variety, with their gay flowers jutting from the top, and their basket-like configuration of leaves. In Cusuco, the bromeliads were massive, heavy and filled with all sorts of interesting creatures, which make their home in the crevices and water pools which the leaves create.

A potted bromeliad compared with its wild relative –first photo by Alan Myers, flickr CC, second photo courtesy of Dr. Merljin Jocqué.

A potted bromeliad compared with its wild relative –first photo by Alan Myers, flickr CC, second photo courtesy of Dr. Merljin Jocqué.

The invertebrates form the largest part of the community in these plants, but some frogs, such as hylids, are of the opinion bromeliads make prime real estate, and can live their whole lives inside such a plant, croaking meters above the ground at night.

For his research, Dr. Jocqué brings down from the trees some of these bromeliads and takes them apart to see what invertebrates are hiding in there. Each leaf is carefully pealed back from the bottom, keeping it intact, and the mushy watery/muddy substance at its base carefully inspected for any small critters – this is done over a tarp and is a thoroughly enjoying experience which the volunteers and research assistants (and quite a lot of staff members, myself included) found awesome. Especially when we found tadpoles with legs.

The bromeliad operation.

The bromeliad operation.

After collecting all the animals in the bromeliad, the leaves are then used to create “fake” bromeliads, which consist of a couple of cups with bromeliad leaves jammed in there. These cups are then put on trees for a while and the biodiversity that “moves in” is monitored.

I was interested in knowing how Dr. Jocqué had become involved with Opwall:Well I got involved during my PhD on aquatic invertebrate community ecology in temporary freshwater rock pools studying convergent structure on spatial scales. On one of the statistics courses I became friends with a consultant who was meant to come out on one of the first expeditions with OPWALL in Honduras to look at aquatic invertebrate communities in bromeliads. Due to circumstances he was not able to do so and I gladly helped him out. This was in 2006 and I remained involved ever since.”

Unsurprisingly, as the years went by Dr. Jocqué became more involved with the science programme at Cusuco:” Over time I got more involved in the overall biodiversity monitoring of the cloud forest in Cusuco National Park, and now fill the position as Biodiversity Survey Coordinator with OPWALL in Honduras. Additionally I still continue my own research on metacommunity dynamics with aquatic invertebrates in bromeliads as a study system.”

A cloud forest can be a challenging environment to work in, hiking in narrow jungle paths that are either going up or down (not a lot of flat ground) and carrying your bag on your back. But when I asked Dr. Jocqué what he found most challenging, his reply had nothing to do with that:

“In a broad perspective I would say the confrontation with ongoing degradation of natural regions. From a personal perspective, not to lose yourself in your research, it is wonderfully absorbing. “

As for his advice, it is quite simple, yet fundamental: Follow your interest and your passion.”

As for the future, Dr. Jocqué will soon begin a new job as a project coordinator with the Stanford University in California: “I will be joining a research group looking into Schistosomiasis in West Africa (Senegal) and how to decrease presence through the aquaculture and introduction of a native crayfish that preys on the snail host.”

In many areas of the world, including the Neotropics, many habitats are still woefully understudied and at increasing risk from human pressure. It is a race against time to learn and preserve places like Cusuco National Park. Plus, there is still so much to find out, it can be mind boggling. Thankfully, Dr. Jocqué is on the case.

Dr. Jocqué´s favourite sound in the forest: The Slate-coloured Solitaire´s song (Myadestes unicolor), Click here to hear their call.

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