International Day of Biological Diversity: A Conversation with Ecologist Maria Uriarte

Maria Uriarte is a Professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology at Columbia University in New York City since 2005. She is a contributor to our partnership with the Luquillo LTER Schoolyard program in Puerto Rico. She is a community ecologist, a forest ecologist, and a landscape ecologist. She studies primarily tropical forests, not just in Puerto Rico, but also in Peru, Brazil, and Costa Rica. In honor of the International Day for Biological Diversity, Cat McGee sat down with Maria to talk about her work and the importance of celebrating this day. 

Cat: Can you tell me about the research you conduct? 

Maria: Primarily I’m interested in the process of how forests recover from two types of impacts. One is how do forests regrow after the abandonment of agricultural activity? How are forests restored, not from replanting but naturally? How do they recover? I tell people it’s like the process of what happens to your backyard if you just stop mowing. Stuff starts to grow and eventually it will become a forest, depending on where you live. That’s the process that interests me. The second thing I study is how forests recover from natural disturbances like hurricanes and fires. Essentially, a very similar thing happens. The forest gets reduced or damaged, it doesn’t start from zero in this case, and then it recovers because nature is a force. If there’s an empty space, nature will fill it. But what is that process, and how does it work? That’s pretty much in a nutshell what I do.

Cat: How do you conduct your research?

Maria: I follow how forests come back to life. We have essentially two basic ways of doing this. One of them is to go repeatedly to the same place and see what happens over time. To give you an example, there is an area in Puerto Rico. It’s about 16 hectares, about 350 meters by 500 meters. Every five years, we go back and we measure the trees there, how much did they grow? Who died? Who lived? Who has come in? That allows us to keep track of how the forest is changing over time. After a hurricane we’re going to see a tremendous change. That’s one way that we look at change. The other way that we look at change is through satellites. There are tons of satellites in space. And that allows us to look at much bigger areas because we’re not tracking every individual tree. We’re tracking changes in forest cover in space and when the forest comes in and what are the drivers of that recovery. 

Cat: The slogan for this year’s International Day of Biological Diversity is “We are a Part of the Solution #ForNature.” How can we live out that slogan?

Maria: This is the decade of restoration at the UN, which means that we have reached the point where we somehow need to repair the ecosystems that we have damaged. There’s two ways that we can do that. We can do assisted restoration which is when somebody goes and plants trees or solves a specific problem. Then there’s natural restoration, which is what I study. Natural restoration means if you leave an area alone in many parts of the world, the forest will come back. It is critically important to do this process naturally for two reasons. One, there is not enough money allotted to plant trees everywhere where we need to plant trees. So we need to allow nature to work. That doesn’t mean we take a hands-off approach because we know that if we don’t intervene, things that have regenerated and been restored will be cleared again. For example in Brazil we are trying to understand how long do forest persist and what are the factors that determine how long they persist? Even though we see regrowth, the majority of these areas get cleared within three to five years. o letting nature do its thing is not enough. We need to intervene. 

A view from El Yunque Peak in El Yunque National Forest, Puerto Rico, Nov. 3, 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Joshua L. DeMotts)

An example from the point of view of disturbance is in the work I’ve done with hurricanes in Puerto Rico. Different species resist hurricanes better than others. And other species are better at resisting drought, which is also a common event. We need the whole slew of variability that nature gives us to have a forest that can resist all the things that nature and us are throwing at them. Hurricanes, droughts, insect pests, fires, every species does something completely different. That’s the beauty of evolution, right? There’s always a new idea. There’s always a new solution. So I think the role of biodiversity is critically important. 

Cat: How did you get into the field of ecology? 

Maria: A very sideways way. My undergrad degree is in Business Administration. And I spent three years working for a Fortune 500 company. I decided that just wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life so I joined the Peace Corps, and I spent two years working in agriculture in West Africa. This was many years ago but what struck me there was I lived in an area where the water table was at 30 meters below the surface. That meant anytime people wanted to farm, they had to dig deep wells to get the water that they needed. It was also an area that was pretty rapidly becoming desertified and becoming drier and drier so, I got really interested in environmental questions through this lens of agriculture. When I came back, I decided to study that because I was already interested in ecology as a field. I still care and I’m aware of why ecosystems matter to people because I think we need to do a much better job of emphasizing the value of species and ecosystems to people, which I think have been taken for granted for a big part of human history. So that’s my journey.

Cat: Why do you feel that it’s important to celebrate International Day of Biological Diversity? 

Maria: I think the older I get, the more I think we are a product of our lived experiences. We cannot understand or love nature if we don’t know it. It’s not an abstract concept. I think most people, if you’re lucky, have a memory of some time that you spent in nature. Maybe when you were a kid or with a relative. Or you went to a park, and there was something there that caught your attention that engaged you in some way or another. In my case, I spent a lot of time on the coast where I grew up, so I really learned to love the ocean and love the things that I saw in the ocean. And I think it will be hard to make a case for nature and its value if we don’t somehow highlight and celebrate what it is, what it brings us, what it does for us and, how absolutely magnificent it is. 

Cat: Since you began your career, have you seen more emphasis towards inviting young people to understand the importance of sustainability and respecting the environment? 

Maria: I’ve seen a big change in terms of society’s attitude towards the environment, which I think goes hand in hand with interesting young people in nature, too, because young people don’t respond to our words, they respond to our example. In terms of thinking about pollution, thinking about environmental destruction, thinking recently about climate change and the effect it has on our natural environment, the rising consciousness is astonishing, which is great. Young people have been very instrumental in calling attention to these issues, bringing it to the public eye. I see that more young people are interested. They don’t see this as some kind of weird thing that you go do. They know that it has meaning, that it’s a valuable thing to do.

Cat: Can you talk about how your work with the Luquillo LTER Schoolyard program can increase students’ awareness of the importance of biodiversity?

Maria: I was very involved in the assessment of damage from Hurricane Maria. I worked with the Luquillo Schoolyard program to develop a system for students to go and measure damage to trees, which I think was very well-received. It’s a great lesson for a kid to go to their backyard, especially after the kind of devastation that they experienced, in all kinds of ways, and be able to observe what happened. This tree was damaged. And look, it’s growing back again. Or look, this tree’s just fine. Just having the implicit lesson that a kid can get from nature from doing that exercise is absolutely wonderful. I was very pleased with it. I’m hoping that we’ll eventually get kids interested in, if not in working in this area, at least recognizing that it’s a valuable thing to do.

Luquillo LTER Schoolyard students conducting damage assessment after Hurricane María

Cat: What has been the most surprising discovery you’ve made when it comes to biological diversity and sustainability?

Maria: There’ve been many. It changes from one year to the next. One of the things that’s been really interesting to me is that one of the tree species that is the backbone of forests in Puerto Rico, I had previous assumptions about how it behaved. We’ve done some work recently that shows very clearly that it’s a species that is very vulnerable to drought, which is not what we’d expect, based on ecological theory. It worries me because I don’t know what’s going to happen to it if we get some more severe droughts. That’s one example. Another cool example from a couple years ago that comes to mind is there are clouds of dust that come from the Sahara across the Atlantic to the Caribbean, and I was studying how seedlings come into the forest and what factors affect their survival. I found out that this dust that comes all the way from Africa had an important influence on who lived and who died, which is not something that I was expecting at all. I hadn’t even thought about it before so it’s interesting to think about what happens at a place in your small patch of land and what processes are operating at different larger scales. There are examples from different parts of the world. But I think anytime that you study something in nature, you have to go in with an open mind because there’s always surprises. And that’s the wonderful part of it, you know? That’s what’s great, you just never know what you’re going to find.

Cat: How can people make everyday contributions to the goals set out by Biodiversity Day? 

Maria: I think the most important contribution that we can make to sustainability in general is to reduce consumption of everything. That is the answer. Reduction of any kind of process of consumption, whether it’s food, water, clothing, travel; the answer is that we all need to reduce our consumption, particularly in North America, where the impact is large.

Cat: What are characteristics of a good investigator that you see in young people?

Maria:  I think curiosity is probably the most important one. Curiosity and motivation to follow that curiosity.