Mexican Mammal Study in Coffee Farms

March 24, 2014 by Amanda Caudill


In Search of Forest

Bob Rice and Megan Banner on bridge near our forest sites

We are in the middle of last sampling session! Although the focus of this study is to compare the mammal species communities among different types of coffee farms, it is always a good idea to incorporate forest habitats as a baseline, if you can. It has proven quite difficult though to find any contiguous forest in this coffee landscape. Our first sampling sites were in forested areas, but the habitat was fragmented. Most of the forested areas left in this landscape seem to be at the very tops of the mountains where the land is too steep and isolated to plant coffee.

For this last sampling session in the forest, we set out to see if we could find any contiguous forest in this area. We went further north to what was described as a "jungle" area near a coffee farm. We hiked up the mountain with a guide to see the property, after eating huge slices of papaya that were graciously given to us by our host. (Papaya is one of my least favorite fruits, but I smiled and ate as much as I could until one of my field assistants saved me and ate the rest.) The jungle area that we saw was at the very top of the mountain surrounded by coffee. So we continued with our exploration in search of contiguous forest.

We hiked through another coffee farm to survey an area land that looked like it could be a swath of forest, or at least not coffee. This one was very steep with hidden trenches under the vines. In terms of land use, it was mainly just overgrown vegetation and did not have characteristics of a forest (such as trees).

So then we hiked along a roadway in the valley that looked like it could have forest alongside its banks. We scaled up the steep cliffs through the vegetation, vines, and brush, finally making it up to the top only to find…more coffee. Finally, we found a strip of forested area between a river and roadway that, although it is still fragmented and not ideal, will have to serve as our forest sites. These small tracts are all that are left as forest in this landscape.

Peromyscus (mouse) species in a coffee plant. They are known to climb well, but are mainly terrestrial.

This week my advisor from the Smithsonian, Bob Rice, came to visit, see the study sites, and meet the field team. It was fun to have him here and show him all that we have been doing these past couple of months. It was also great to hear his insights on coffee cultivation and management. At one of the farms they are grafting coffee varietals in their nursery.

There are 2 species of coffee that we drink—arabica and robusta. Arabica is often thought to be of higher quality and have a smoother flavor than robusta. As a result, you will often find bags of coffee that boast "100% arabica coffee." Bob explained that at this nursery they were actually grafting arabica varietals onto robusta plants because robusta is often a hardier plant and is less susceptible to coffee diseases, such as coffee rust. The farm manager also told us that the roots of robusta are less attractive to moles who apparently eat arabica coffee roots.

The field crew profile this week is of Caitlin Campbell who recently graduated from the University of Vermont with a degree in Environmental Science with a concentration in Conservation Biology.

Why were you interested in doing this field work?

I love international field work and was excited to have this opportunity to live and work in the mountains of southern Mexico. It is also very fulfilling to work on a project with practical conservation implications.

Favorite thing so far:

Handling and viewing such fascinating wildlife, especially in the context of the broader ecosystem; finding unexpected non-target species like as birds, lizards, frogs in the Sherman traps; smelling mouse opossums (they smell like Aunt Jemima to me); and practicing my Spanish by chatting with coffee workers.

Special skills:

Rapid uneven-terrain navigation, scorpion wrangling, splinter removal, and enthusiastic waving.

Urocyon cinereoargenteus (gray fox) from camera trap