Managing Expectations at High Elevations
Julia Monk has experienced the highs and lows of fieldwork in a remote corner of Argentina’s arid Andean steppe.
“Just looking for that flash of red on the horizon,” Julia explains, “Blood and carcass. A puma might have made that kill.” Each morning at 4:30am, Julia would leave her isolated field station with a car and her binoculars. She was in search of vicuña, one of two wild llama species in South America. Though she wouldn’t be searching for small family groups; Julia was looking for the recently deceased.
Sometimes she’d get lucky with a fresh kill, sometimes she’d get there a little too late – beaten by her competition – the keen eye of the region’s most prolific scavenger, the Andean Condor. Her pre-dawn departures into the frigid mountain air were strategic. The Andean Condor, mainland South America’s largest bird of flight, depends on massive thermal columns to breathe life into their 10-foot wingspan. As the sun heated the landscape to create updrafts, condors are infinitely more effective at finding these fresh carcasses and scavenging the remains.
Whether its death is natural or caused by a puma, Julia studies these vicuña carcasses. A YIBS grantee, Julia is one year into her Ph.D. thesis investigating the impact of recycled nutrients into the landscape. Her truncated thesis suggests that vicuña often move in fear of pumas, the region’s apex predator. These movements keep vicuña away from their most desired habitat, but their excrement and death location helps recycle nutrients into more undesirable, sparsely populated locations of the ecosystem.
Understanding how these carcasses decompose might help Julia understand how landscapes with low productivity receive nutrients, in turn becoming more productive. Far-reaching extrapolation could even associate carbon sequestration with the expansion of moist peat ecosystems in comparison to a dry and rocky desert.
However, these parched surfaces are not conducive to most forms of life. The lunar landscape of the Andean steppe seems closer to the surface of Mars than planet Earth. Twisted red rock and steep canyons punctuate the landscape and the series of desert hills continue into the horizon. The barren soil won’t allow for much plant growth, let alone human dwellings.
On the best of travel days, Julia’s nearest town was 5 hours away. On an average day, Julia was surrounded by local park rangers and miles of wilderness in every direction. In the worst of circumstances, Julia could find herself stranded for days at a time. On multiple occasions, she quite literally found her fieldwork stalled as swollen rivers enveloped her truck. No way in and no way out, all she could do was wait for conditions to become passable.
Julia looks equally at ease in the comfortable armchairs of Yale University’s Kroon Hall, but you can see the excitement in her face as she leans forward to describe her fieldwork. The world she describes seems to be a lightyear away from everyday life on campus. Multiple sightings of pumas, vicuña, condors, weeks away from societal amenities, rivers that keep her field station isolated, adventure at literally every turn. YIBS helps fund the research, but it is Julia’s passion for adventure and science that finds answers to life in the most remote corners of our planet.
Julia Monk is a Ph.D. Candidate in Dr. Os Schmitz Lab at Yale University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org with research questions and inquiries.
Edited by Ben Zukowski, YIBS Science Communication Fellow