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The Secret Life of Trees

By Sue McMurray

Humans and nature have a common thread – they both harbor secrets that once unlocked, could reveal powerful solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems.

Andre Sanfiorenzo, an environmental science doctoral student from Guayama, Puerto Rico, studying in the Joint Doctoral Program between the University of Idaho and the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE) in Costa Rica, is searching to discover if there are hidden relationships between people, forest fragmentation and species decline.
Funded by the U-Idaho/CATIE National Science Foundation Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT), Sanfiorenzo is part of the San Juan La Selva Biological Corridor team working in the Sarapiqui region near the Caribbean coast. When in the field, Sanfiorenzo spends his days in the rainforest, collecting leaf tissues and installing cameras at the mid-canopy level to observe how bat species pollinate and disperse seeds of various tree species.

“I’m looking at the interactions between bats and trees in order to assess forest health,” explains Sanfiorenzo. “My samples undergo DNA analysis to reveal if trees are genetically related. If they are very similar (low genetic diversity), that means they are inbred and have low gene flow, which leads to an overall loss of fitness and an increased risk for extinction.”
Sanfiorenzo’s field work contributes to the scientific understanding of a relatively new area of research called “landscape genetics,” a science that has high potential for practical conservation and management of natural resources.

“The study of landscape genetics has the potential to greatly enhance our knowledge of how landscape and environmental features influence animal and plant movement, population viability, and gene flow,” said Lisette Waits, Sanfiorenzo’s University of Idaho adviser.

Sanfiorenzo’s team’s engagement in landscape genetics research will identify specific areas where forest loss affects plants and animals. Additionally, they will address larger-scale questions such as whether the Juan La Selva Biological Corridor is achieving goals of wildlife and plant connectivity and if it is resilient under future climate scenarios.

“This work will provide managers with tools to assess ecosystem health and integrity and identify priority areas of concern,” says Sanfiorenzo. Once he graduates, he plans to become professor at the University of Puerto Rico and work toward establishing a non-government organization focusing on conserving natural resource ecosystems and managing forest fragmentation effects in tropical landscapes.