Student - November 24, 2016

‘Dutch suddenly sounded very odd’

Who? Emma van Baalen, Master’s student of Forest and nature conservation
What? Thesis on drought resistance in giant trees
Where? Reserva Florestal Aldolpho Ducke, Manaus, Brazil

‘We had to go into the field at six o’clock in the morning. The sun was just up then and shone beautifully through the leaves. We had to set off that early because the tree branches are still well hydrated at that time of day. My thesis was about drought resistance in giant trees in the tropical rainforest.

In very dry conditions, air bubbles can form in the tree’s vessels, interrupting the water transport and stopping water reaching the leaves, which then hang lifelessly. The formation of these air bubbles is called cavitation.

Pruning shears

In the morning Mariazinha, my field assistant, and I went into the forest with a pair of pruning shears to collect branches. Only she didn’t speak English and I spoke very little Portuguese. I knew my numbers after a while, and I knew ‘left’, ‘right’, ‘here’ and ‘there’. That went a long way during the fieldwork. Mariazinha always helped students in the forest, she knew a lot of species and animals, she could find her way around, and she was always cheerful and happy.

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I studied the branches we collected in the lab. The species on the dry plateau were more drought-resistant than species in the valley. With climate change come longer periods of drought. Species which can’t cope well with that will suffer more. This means the combination of species can change, which can have serious implications for people who make their living from forest products. And it is not just people who live in the forest, but a great many animals as well. When we came back from the forest at around 10 am, the lizards were already basking in the sun. We even saw a poisonous snake eating up one of these lizards. That was really cool! And close to the camp was a harpy eagle’s nest. That’s a big bird of prey. One of its young sometimes flew rather brashly our camp.


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What did I learn? That family and friends are very important. Not many Brazilians speak much English so you do miss that communication. I didn’t call home all that often: in three months I skyped with my mother twice. The time difference and the bad internet connection made it difficult. When I got back, Dutch suddenly sounded really odd. Even when you’re the one speaking. You think, Oh yes, that’s how it goes!’