My Anchor in the Rainforest - Heliconia

by Britte

The first time I ever walked in a tropical rainforest, I was overwhelmed by the diversity of all the different trees, epiphytes, shrubs, and palms. I was used to the Dutch deciduous forest, where most trees looked familiar and I could easily identify different species. When I ended up in the Colombian part of Amazonia for fieldwork, I didn’t know any plants and had trouble finding two individuals of the same species. The local guide and my advisor pointed out which leaves I should and definitely should not use as toilet paper, which plants produced edible parts and which plants produced very toxic leaves. It was overwhelming, and it wasn’t until Crystal, my advisor, pointed out which plants were disturbance indicators, that I finally saw a bit of light.

Plants from the genus Heliconia have beautiful, distinct flowers that make them very easy to recognize. They became the first plants I could identify and understand in the rainforest; when I saw them, I started to feel like I had a grip on the flora. Heliconia only grows in canopy-openings, which provide them with plenty of sunlight. That means that if you find Heliconia, either a large tree recently collapsed and took down other trees with it, or humans previously cleared the forest patch. Since I was doing research on past human activities, Heliconia also became an important part of my research.

Before I traveled to the Amazonian rainforest, I worked on a lake sediment core from Ecuador that my advisor collected years ago, as part of my undergraduate thesis. I tried to identify phytoliths, which are tiny silica remains of plants that end up in the soil when a plant dies and is decomposed. The shape and size of phytoliths differ between plant species, genus, or family, and I used them to reconstruct past vegetation and agriculture around that Ecuadorian lake.

Heliconia phytolith

My first days in the Amazonian rainforest reminded me of the Ecuadorian core — I was as lost in the rainforest flora as I had been when I first began identifying phytoliths under my microscope. Under the microscope, the diversity of phytoliths and other remains was overwhelming. That was until I discovered my first Heliconia phytolith. It stood out from the round balls that most trees produced and didn’t look like any of the phytoliths from grasses or palms I’d seen before. Heliconia phytoliths had some spikes around their edges and an incredibly distinctive ‘rupture’ in the middle. It was the first phytolith I identified with a sense of confidence, and the start of my love of research and paleoecology.

Britte is a master’s student, studying paleoecology at the University of Amsterdam and visiting the BEAST Lab at University of Maine this year. Britte wants to see the world.