Into the Amazon Summer Research in Peru

It has been five years since Science Teacher Michael McAloon first traveled to the Peruvian Amazon. McAloon, along with Science Department Head Dr. Amanda Benedict, made the journey in 2018 as part of a pilot program for science educators. For 10 days, McAloon and Benedict were students in a hands-on, experiential classroom without walls, learning from the Maijuna people, a group indigenous to Peru’s forest region along the Sucusari River, who shared what they had learned about conservation by living in one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the world.

From left: Dr. Benedict, tour guide Willy Flores Lanza, Michael McAloon

This summer, McAloon returned to the Peruvian Amazon with fellow Taft Science Teacher Maddie Beitler. McAloon and Beitler participated in two of the primary research projects currently being led by the Amazon Research Initiative for Educators program. The program is conducted by The Morpho Institute, an international nonprofit dedicated to protecting the Amazon— its forests, rivers, biodiversity, and people—as a vital global resource through education and conservation.

McAloon served as the primary investigator for a molecular study on pollen collected by native stingless bees.

Beitler and McAloon also conducted fieldwork with Dr. Robert Naczi, a longtime Taft education partner and Arthur J. Cronquist Curator of North American Botany, Institute of Systematic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden.

Beitler, McAloon, and Naczi collaborated on two projects: monitoring the diversity of orchid bees and patterns of beetle herbivory on spectacular Heliconia plants.

“These projects, along with my work with stingless bee pollen, have already led to discoveries important to the conservation of the rainforest in the region, including undescribed insect species,” notes McAloon.

The scientists traveled by boat to collect Heliconia beetles along the banks of the Napo River.

Left to right: Dr. Naczi, Emeritus Curator of Invertebrates at Cincinnati Zoo Randy Morgan, Director of Education Emerita at Cornell Lab of Ornithology Nancy Troutman, Morpho Institute Director Christa Dillabaugh, and McAloon.

Beitler, McAloon, and Naczi traveled to the San Marco Natural History Museum in Lima, where they used the museum's entomology collections to help identify the insects they collected in the Peruvian rainforest.

Beitler checking location data from publications to verify orchid bee species identifications (left), while McAloon and Naczi use reference specimens, some nearly 100 years old, to identify orchid bee species they collected in the rainforest (below).

Once identification was complete, the orchid bees and Heliconia beetles collected during McAloon and Beitler's trip to Peru were deposited into the collections at the San Marco Museum.

McAloon's work on the identification of pollen collected by the bees using molecular techniques is part of an ongoing, novel study that will be continued by Taft students in the Honors Field Ecology course this spring. The work that Taft students have already done from previous years and will do this coming year directly impacts the conservation of the Napo-Sucusari Biological Reserve and the Maijuna-Kichwa Regional Conservation Area and is conducted in partnership with members of the indigenous Maijiuna community.

McAloon used an iPhone controlled, battery-powered PCR machine--a "lab-in-a-box"--to sequence DNA extracted from stingless bee pollen. " Students in his Taft classrooms field-tested the equipment for proof of concept before his trip.
McAloon gathering stingless bee pollen with Morpho Institute Director Christa Dillabaugh (left) and Director of Education Emerita at Cornell Lab of Ornithology Nancy Troutman.

McAloon presented beekeepers and community leaders with a poster created by Taft students showing results from their own research, the result of the ongoing collaboration between McAloon, Taft students, and the Maijuna community.

The beekeepers in photo from left: Oracio (Jairo) Perez Tangoa, Marina Rodriguez Cachique, Magnolia Machoa Ayambo, Lindaura Pinedo Rios, Lisbiana Pisango Padilla, Nallar Sanda Rios, Michael McAloon, Duglas Rios Vaca, Lesley Rios Rios, Severino Rios Ochoa.

This year, McAloon's students will also learn to use sound recognition software to analyze terabytes of sound data collected from this Terrestrial Passive Acoustic Recording Unit from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. McAloon installed the recorder in the Peruvian rainforest, where it ran continuously for two weeks, picking up sounds from birds, insects, and amphibian species.

This extraordinary opportunity was made possible by the generous support of dedicated Taft donors. On behalf of Mike, Maddie, and the entire Taft community, we are deeply grateful to those who made this program possible. Their generosity benefits Taft students and faculty, the greater science community, and the Maijuna people of Peru.