Operation Wallacea Terrestrial Sites
Mexico and Honduras
The aim of this article is to give some more information on two research sites of Operation Wallacea (Opwall) which I visited as a staff member. More specifically, Calakmul (terrestrial research site of Opwall Mexico) and Cusuco (terrestrial research site of Opwall Honduras). Although I intend to help potential participants to further explore the options and make a decision on which Opwall site to visit, I want to stress out it’s my own opinion and thoughts. Learn more about other volunteer options.
I will first describe my roles and activities, where after I will compare the two terrestrial research site to the best of my abilities in order to give you a good overview of what you can expect.
My background in the projects
I’m Sam Puls and you can find more about me here. My first contact with Operation Wallacea (Opwall) was in 2015. I applied for a mammal position at their Romanian research site, instead, I got offered a position in their Mexico research site (Calakmul). In 2016, I joined the Operation Wallacea team in Honduras (Cusuco). In both years, I was a mammal scientist, but in a way they were two totally different experiences. In Calakmul (Mexico), I stayed in basecamp for the whole season, whereas in Cusuco (Honduras) I visited all camps.
Organisation: Operation Wallacea (Opwall)
Role: Terrestrial Mammal Scientist
Tasks: Transects in search for animal tracks & camera trapping
Mexico and Honduras are 2 very different sites. Here I will attempt to point out similarities and differences.
Description & habitat
The Mexican terrestrial site of Operation Wallacea is based in Calakmul. It’s a Nature Reserve close to the Guatemalan border. The reserve is known for its Ancient Mayan ruins, more or less in the middle of the reserve. Basecamp is based at the entrance and museum of the park. It’s a very nice and cosy place. There is still a road going further to the ruins, so this gave Opwall the opportunity to expand the research area covered from basecamp. The road is used to drop off people by car to transects further away. Furthermore, Calakmul is quite flat and the plant diversity isn’t as high as Honduras. Although it’s not really a typical tropical forest setting, it is a great biodiversity hotspot. Furthermore, I heard other satellite camps have more variation in elevation and habitat. I did not visit them during the expedition. Mexico can be very warm and humid.
In Mexico, guides are used for tree identification and are staff on surveys such as with the primate team and on birds, while in Honduras we always have local guides accompanying us whilst out on transect.
For an overview of the different camps in Calakmul with some basic info, check the map story from burdGIS.
Cusuco, the Honduran field site, is also situated near the border with Guatemala, but on the South border of Guatemala. Cusuco is more the typical tropical forest, as it is classified as cloud forest. It has a variety of plants and habitats, including dwarf forest. In general, this cloud forest is a bit cooler than Mexico, also a bit of a higher elevation. But don’t be afraid, the ‘cooler’ temperature is usually like a nice western European summer day, around 25°C maybe. In Honduras, I got the opportunity to visit all camps through different habitats. One of the first things I noticed was the elevation differences. It was tough at times, but all worth it. Each group, when leaving camp, need to be accompanied by a local guide.
For an overview of the different camps with some basic info, check the map story from burdGIS.
As there is a huge difference in habitat, it is obvious there are differences in physical requirements.
Mexico: Basecamp was definitely not very difficult, transects are more or less flat (with one exception). Students can get to all the transects. In the remote satellite camps, transects can be a bit more challenging.
Honduras: Because of the geology, there is a lot of elevation differences which need to be conquered. In general, students are not taken on all the transects. In each camp, there are always a couple of transects which are definitely suitable for students, and a lot of effort is done to make them as accessible as possible.
- Overall Mexico is less physically demanding than Honduras. Definitely something to take in consideration.
Scientific Approach + Specialised fields
Off course, the scientific specialised fields can vary largely between years, depending on people on site, etc.
Mexico has a good basic monitoring set up. Students will definitely learn a lot. For grad students interested in research on monkeys, Calakmul (Mexico) is definitely a good place. Furthermore, there are a lot of bat species around. In 2015 there was also a try out with a butterfly survey, which wasn’t the case in Honduras (2016). From mammal point of view, Mexico had a lot to offer. Although finding the tracks is not that easy in the leaf litter. There are also some Aguada’s with Morelett crocodiles. Currently, there is a guy researching them who is very knowledgeable.
Overall, Cusuco has a lot of different scientists returning and doing some of their own research and side projects. Cusuco also has very special habitats with some endemic species. Most of the endemic species found are frogs. For reptiles and amphibians, Cusuco is quite a hotspot. Compared to Calakmul (Mexico), in Cusuco there is also research done on small mammals, invertebrates, etc. Within the invertebrates: moths, dung beetles, and diversity in Bromilia are some of the main topics.
- Both research sites are doing very well in educating Honduras has a lot more different projects going on, with a larger variety of scientists. Although not all of these projects are as accessible as they should for high school students. For large mammals, Mexico is probably better. Honduras has been running longer than Mexico as a site.
Of course, it’s all in the field, so don’t expect a lot of luxury. You are sleeping in tents or hammocks and the food is really basic, provided by local people.
Accommodation: Base Camp has a couple of facilities like toilets and showers. They also have a nice dining area and a research building (both protected with a mosquito net to keep them out). There is also electricity available during specific times, mostly when the generator is running. They have a solar panel set up to charge the batteries. In the evening, there is usually light available in the research room, where you can sit and chat or play games. Everyone will sleep in tents.
Basecamp is based near the Museum of the Calakmul reserve. They have a little shop inside for snacks and drinks. I can’t say anything about the satellite camps, but usually they are very remote with very basic facilities.
Food: I’m a vegetarian myself, but during my stay in basecamp I recall there were some meals with meat available for those with no dietary requirements. The food was really good. Although there is a lot of rice and beans involved. Come with an open mind and you will be amazed.
Update from Calakmul (Mexico): Basecamp (KM20) has had some major refurbishment. A massive kitchen and dining room have been added. They also made a mini garden in the centre of the campsite and they added some additional nice toilets as well.
Accommodation: Base camp is at one of the entrances of Cusuco National Park. There are a couple of buildings for equipment. They have decent toilets and showers available (showers are very cold). You are sleeping in tents. It has a nice large shed for socialising, eating, etc. In the evenings, a head torch is a must though. The generator is running when the projector is needed for presentations, but in general less electricity in Basecamp Honduras. In the satellite camps, no electricity is available, but there is a campfire and other stuff.
Local people had little ‘shops’ where you can buy some snacks and potential souvenirs, although it’s not a certainty in satellite camps.
Food: Very rarely meat meals. The food was really good. There is a lot of rice and beans involved. Almost every meal also has tortillas. Although I was probably a bit unlucky with transfer times between camps, which resulted in having a lot of soups as my meals. But again, very good food. Come with an open mind and you will be amazed.
- Accommodation is very basic but good enough for a nice experience. Overall, rice and beans are an important dish. As I recall I liked the food in Mexico, which might be biased as I only stayed in basecamp there.
Personally, both experiences were great. Mexico definitely had its charms with the Ruins inside of the park and the easier accessible transects. The basecamp is also very nice with nice facilities and a museum next door. Mexico runs also on a smaller scale, as in not as many students as Honduras. Although this can probably vary a lot between years.
In Honduras, I had the great experience to go to all the different camps. It was physically very demanding, but also a very nice experience. Mammal wise, Honduras was not as rich as Mexico, as it’s a smaller reserve with potentially more hunting around. Nonetheless, I really enjoyed Honduras exploring all the different animal groups. In most camps, light trapping of moths was a nice evening activity (almost like a cinema).
Both Opwall research sites are great. You definitely get the ‘fieldwork experience’ and meet some very nice and dedicated people. In general, Mexico is a bit of an ‘easier’ site from physical point of view. Honduras is quite demanding and some transects can be dangerous, depending on weather circumstances. In both sites, you live a very basic life in close proximity to other people. Lastly, I want to stress out these are experiences during my time at the research sites, things might have changed afterwards.
If you are interested in Reports and Publications, you can check them out here, just use the search box to check what’s been going on in different countries.
Below a video a friend of mine made from our experience in Mexico, definitely check it out! (It might be a bit biased towards mammals)
© Matthew Owen