Grad Student Spotlight: Samantha Zwicker

by Karl Wirsing/SEFS

As the rest of Seattle hunkers down for the darkest days and months of the year, first-year doctoral student Samantha Zwicker has been gearing up for a far more tropical experience as she preps for her winter field season in the Peruvian Amazon.

Zwicker originally came to the University of Washington to study zoology, but she eventually tapped into her interest in ecosystem ecology with Program on the Environment and SEFS.

Zwicker originally came to the University of Washington to study zoology, but she eventually tapped into her interest in ecosystem ecology with Program on the Environment and SEFS.

Zwicker, who grew up nearby on Bainbridge Island, has been working with Professor Kristiina Vogt since her time as an undergrad at the University of Washington. She has explored various angles of ecosystem ecology, conservation and human impacts on the environment, and she earned her master’s last spring with a project in the same region of the Amazon.

Now, for her doctoral work, she has begun a large-scale study assessing the impact of roads on big cats—primarily jaguar (Panthera onca)—in the Las Piedras River basin, wedged roughly between Peru’s southeastern borders with Brazil and Bolivia.

New settlements and a growing population along the river have resulted in an influx of roads and other stresses on the ecosystem, from selective logging to the clearing of forestland for farming. Despite these land-use pressures, though, the rainforest is surrounded by several national parks and reserves, and it continues to foster an incredible diversity of flora and fauna, from giant anteaters and armadillos, to bush dogs and lowland tapirs, to jaguars and even the rare pacarana. “It’s the last intact tropical forest left in the Amazon, and it’s not protected right now,” says Zwicker.

A crucial part of preserving this habitat involves proving its ecological significance, but she says researchers don’t yet have the animal data to support a conservation strategy. So Zwicker has designed her doctoral program to see how roads are affecting animal movements—and in the process gather as much data as possible about the wildlife communities in the Las Piedras River basin.

Caught on Camera
Zwicker’s research team includes field assistants Harry Turner and Danielle Bogardus, and she also coordinates with several other organizations in the region, including ARCAmazon and Wild Forests and Fauna.

“One time while we were floating down the central stream on a pack raft, we saw a jaguar lying out in the sun on a log,” says Zwicker. “That was probably the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Not all of her jaguar sightings come via camera trap, like this shot here.  “One time while we were floating down the central stream on a pack raft, we saw a jaguar lying out in the sun on a log,” says Zwicker. “That was probably the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Her study area covers about 450 square kilometers, and the heart of her project involves setting up an extensive network of camera-traps along secondary road networks. These motion-sensitive cameras snap an image of animals that cross in front of their infrared sensors, which detect changes in heat energy. With 100 cameras currently placed, this non-invasive technique allows her to capture a cross-section of species in the jungle and also explore several variables, including tracking how, where and when animals are moving—using roads, streams, etc.—and how those movements relate to habitat qualities—forest density, proximity to human activity, illegal logging. (Check out the video below for a sample of the camera-trap footage of a jaguar!)

More broadly, Zwicker hopes the cameras will help her establish baseline population numbers for some of these secretive and largely unstudied animals. “This place is important and rich in biodiversity,” she says, “and I really want to contribute and show this using mammal frequencies and density estimates.”

One of the biggest challenges in setting up her study, actually, has been concealing the cameras well enough to make sure no one discovers and walks off with them, which was a real problem during her master’s research. This time she expanded her outreach in local communities to explain the work she’s doing, and she says she’s gotten a lot sneakier in placing the cameras. “We hid them well.”

It’s still early, but the camera-traps are already yielding exciting results. “It’s incredibly rare to see a pacarana,” says Zwicker. “The last known camera-trap photo was in 2004, but I’ve recently caught three different individuals.”

It’s still early, but the camera-traps are already yielding exciting results. “It’s incredibly rare to see a pacarana,” says Zwicker. “The last known camera-trap photo was in 2004, but I’ve recently caught three different individuals.”

As she continues to build her data set, Zwicker anticipates at least another three years of field work. She’s traveling to Peru twice a year, including three months in the summer and then almost two months in the winter (she’ll be heading down this January for most of the Winter Quarter). It’s no easy trek to reach this part of the Amazon, either. She flies into Puerto Maldonado, the entrance city to the jungle, and then has to take an eight-hour boat ride to haul her equipment up the river to her base site near the community of Lucerna—where, incredibly, her doctoral research covers only half of the work she’s doing in Peru.

Double Duty
Lucerna, after all, is also home to Hoja Nueva, a nonprofit that Zwicker cofounded a year ago to help local communities along the Las Piedras River develop more sustainable agricultural practices.

In addition to spurring new road development, population growth in the region has put increasing pressure on converting forests to farm land. And when the soil gets exhausted after three to five years, the cycle continues and accelerates the loss of forest habitat. So working with her partner Melanie Desch, who lives on site in Peru, Zwicker says they are promoting strategies to help these communities maintain their food production and healthy forest ecosystems.

As a master’s student, Zwicker earned the College of the Environment Graduate Dean’s Medalist Award and the SEFS Graduate Student of the Year Award. She’s also President of the Xi Sigma Pi Forestry Honor Society.

As a master’s student, Zwicker earned the College of the Environment Graduate Dean’s Medalist Award and the SEFS Graduate Student of the Year Award. She’s also President of the Xi Sigma Pi Forestry Honor Society.

Hoja Nueva now owns 30 hectares in the jungle, and they use part of that plot as an experimental farm, or chakra, to demonstrate permaculture practices, such as using biochar to prolong soil productivity. They’re currently growing 2,000 cacao trees, lime, lemon, mango, avocado, cotton, copazu, maracuya, yucca and uncucha, among many other trees, herbs and vegetables. Their goal is to provide a practical framework for communities to follow along the Las Piedras River, as well as in other lowland rainforest environments. “We’re hoping the Piedras will become a larger, protected area,” says Zwicker, “and we’re working with the communities because they can make the largest impact on the ground.”

When she’s not down in Peru, Zwicker takes the lead on fundraising in the Seattle area—including hosting a benefit in November that raised about $4,000, which they’ll use to build a more permanent lodge. Right now, their accommodations are fairly basic, and they’re hoping to add a composting toilet and water tower and generally build out infrastructure that could potentially house future SEFS students.

In short, there is plenty of work to do, and between her ambitious long-term goals and all the projects she’s managing year-round in Peru, Zwicker has committed just about every free minute she has. But if you’re lucky enough to steal a moment with her, make sure to ask about jaguars, or Hoja Nueva, or really anything related to her work in Peru. She has great stories to tell, and watching her beam with excitement and energy will have you ready to sign up as her field assistant next season!

Photos and video © Sam Zwicker.

Sam Zwicker: Camera Trap Video

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