Hi I’m Marita Davison, we’re here in Bolivia, and we’re about to go study flamingos up in the Andes. 

Our journey will take us from the capital, La Paz, southwest 350 kilometers to the remote reaches of the Andean Altiplano. With a team of Bolivia limnologists, I’m trying to understand the effects of threatened flamingos on their lake ecosystems. 

To do this we need to adapt sampling methods for working in this harsh environment. Altitudes above 4,000 meters, extreme temperature swings, and relentless mud are just a few of the obstacles. 

Just getting to our site is often problematic. Trying to find a way to get to our site, um, without sinking the car, and so I think we’re just gonna have to hike in. We might get a little bit closer but not much more. 

Once the mud gets too thick for the car we go the rest of the way on foot, usually hiking two kilometers to the lake edge carrying all our equipment. 

Okay so we’re finally here on site after six hours on the road. This is Laguna Seqoa. This is one of the few lakes in this area that actually gets the three species of flamingos that live in South America: the Chilean, the Andean, and the James flamingo. 

In this particular site right here we have about, I would say around 85 to 90 percent of the James flamingos and around ten to fifteen percent of the Andean flamingos. These are the two most rare flamingos in the world. They live nowhere else but in these high saline lakes in the Andes. 

And this is our primary site where we’ve got an experiment running, an exclosure experiment, and so behind me you can see a set of plots that are essentially Flamingo fences. We’re trying to keep flamingos out of certain areas, and we’re letting them access the rest of the site, and we’re taking a bunch of samples to see what kind of effect flamingos are having on their ecosystem. 

Lakes such as Laguna Seqoa one can be oases for biodiversity in an otherwise arid landscape. Many migratory birds make the lakes their stomping grounds during long-distance journeys and several mammal, reptile, and bird species are permanent residents. 

Of these residents, flamingos are thought to play a central role in structuring lake communities, so what would happen if flamingos were to disappear? 

The samples we take will help us answer this question. 

Right now we’re in the midst of the exclosure experiment that I have running and it’s just not easy. You know it’s, it’s a short distance but it takes us a long time to get from one point to another, and you know we try to get out here as early as possible, but sampling takes a long time. 

One of these days I will fall, I just hope you don’t get it on camera. 

Once we collect the samples we prepare them on shore for analysis. 

Here’s where simulating being a flamingo. You know flamingos are little algae vacuums out there, and they’re just sucking up there, they put their beak down right on the surface of the sediment, and they’re sucking up sediment and with it they’re sucking up algae. 

We want to have a nice dry sample and a concentrated sample, so once I have a volume, a known volume, in here then I pour out a small volume that I also know the exact amount of, and I filter it onto these glass fiber filters. 

So basically we just pour a known volume in here and we use this pump to, to suck out the water and what we wind up with is a nice little caked on sample of algae that looks like that. 

This technique is often used by ecologists, but here the mud is so soft that we’ve had to adapt new ways for collecting the algae without collecting too much mud. 

A clean algae sample will tell us if flamingos have an influence on the diversity and amount of algae. Because algae are at the base of the food web, changes in algae can mean changes for other organisms that depend on algae for food. 

They’re a lot, there are a lot of obstacles to working here. I mean let’s just start with accessing the site. It’s, it’s a long way and you need a heavy duty, four wheel drive vehicle. 

So that the, just the conditions, the living conditions, are less than ideal. We sleep on what are called biases, which are basically straw mattresses that you put together. They’re really hard .The house, in the houses are you know they’re thatch roof, mud walls, dirt floors. Lots of dust blown around everywhere. 

Environmental conditions here are really extreme so we have extreme temperature swings, but I have to say, I mean it’s so calm. It’s just being out here is just, you know, you’re so far removed from any kind of contact with anything, and you don’t really find that many places. 

Despite the obstacles, this adventure is so rewarding. As grad students we get to ask important questions. What might the Altiplano be like without its flamingos? I think that’s an important question and it’s a privilege to be part of finding out. 


[Fencing Flamingos] 

[Written by: Marita Davison and Jennifer Moslemi] 

[Directed, Shot, and Edited by: R. Jamie Herring]

End of transcript

Did you know that those curved beaks on flamingos help them vacuum up algae, their favorite food? Marita Davison, a former Cornell graduate student, studies the effects of flamingos on the lakes of the high Andes. Equipped with a rugged vehicle and a variety of water sampling equipment, Marita travels off road to the high plains in Bolivia to learn how the flamingo’s foraging strategy affects the lake ecosystem, getting stuck in the mud along the way.