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Before Varun Swamy ’01 was investigating how hunting affects forest regeneration in the rainforests of Peru, he was an environmental studies major and CISLA scholar at the College, conducting research in tidal marshes with the late Professor Paul Fell in Stonington, Conn.
“I want to acknowledge all of my professors,” Swamy, a postdoctoral associate at Duke University, told students at a lecture April 22. “I always think back to my undergraduate years at Conn; this was my stepping stone.”
Swamy returned to campus to speak with students and present his recent research in a lecture titled, “Fruit to Sapling: An integrated study of tree recruitment in an Amazonian rainforest.”
At Connecticut College, Swamy was inspired by a student-faculty Traveling Research and Immersion Program field course in Belize.
“It gave me experience and enthusiasm for field research in the tropics,” he said. “From a practical point of view, the classes and the research experience at Conn are what got me into graduate school. I wouldn’t be at Duke if I hadn’t started here.”
Swamy, whose research is increasingly conservation-focused, studies how plant-animal interactions influence forest regeneration patterns in lowland tropical rainforests. In the Peruvian Amazon, he tested the Janzen-Connell model, a classic and controversial ecological theory established in the early 1970s. It proposes that the probability of a seed’s survival is greatly enhanced the farther it is dispersed from its parent tree. This is because seeds are much more susceptible to insect and fungal pathogens when they are concentrated around their source tree.
In his own experiments, Swamy found evidence consistent with the Janzen-Connell model – seedlings of several species planted far away from parent trees had much higher survivorship than seedlings planted in their vicinity.
Swamy’s recent research examines how the rainforest is being affected by excessive hunting of key seed-dispersing animals such as spider monkeys. In their absence, tree species that depend on them for seed dispersal are at a disadvantage, and their regeneration is greatly reduced.
“The bottom line is that it is not sufficient to protect a rainforest from direct impacts such as logging,” he said. “It is equally important in the long-term to ensure that the critical fauna are also protected from overhunting because they play such important ecological roles.”
Swamy is now extending his study to more locations spread across the Madre de Dios river basin in the Peruvian Amazon.
-Meredith Boyle ’12