Carmen Diaz Paniagua “Poli” knows this place like the back of her hand. “You’ll make a right at the tree with a stork nest, and then turn left when you see the road split into three,” she explains nonchalantly as I follow her through the terrain. All I see are miles of sands and a few scattered bushes, with no discernible landmarks. My Fulbright U.S. Student Program grant in Ecology on the consequences of global change on amphibian dynamics brought me to Doñana National Park, one of the world’s most renowned systems of wetlands tucked away in Southern Spain (Andalucía), two hours southwest of Sevilla.
A few days later, clearly lost as we attempt to follow Poli’s instructions, my labmates Rosa and Maria, and I bop around the dunes in a car. Rosa stopping and twisting the timeworn map sideways says “No! No me lo puedo creer (I can’t believe this),” as she makes a sharp U-turn, the car nearly tipping over. Maria smiles, saying, “todos los problemas tienen soluciones (all problems have solutions).” She’s still chipper despite our long detour in the desert. We finally find the pond, and it’s buzzing with insects and tadpoles. The species found in Doñana have evolved to withstand the heat and scarce rainfall. Doñana is incredibly unique: it’s a rest stop for half a million migratory birds, the last natural habitat of the elusive and endangered Iberian lynx, and home to eleven species of amphibians, the highest in all of Europe. It’s just one of the reasons I chose this spectacular location to conduct my Fulbright in collaboration with Dr. Ivan Gomez Mestre.
Doñana faces urgent problems due to global change. Nearby development and farming has drained the aquifers’ water supply. Permanent ponds are drying for the first time in years, threatening the local wildlife. Invasive species, like the red swamp crayfish and the Argentine ant, are harming the park’s native biodiversity. Thankfully, Poli, Ivan, and a host of other researchers are tackling these issues through field and laboratory studies and by partnering with local government to create protective legislation.
As a Fulbrighter, I had the opportunity to contribute to this thriving scientific community. I conducted ecological experiments aimed at understanding how changes in pond drying and density impact the survival of tadpoles and juvenile frogs, and how these effects scale up to impact populations. How will Doñana’s amphibians respond to an increasingly arid climate, and can they handle multiple stressors throughout their lifecycle? My research seeks to answer these questions using experimental data and creating population models.
When I wasn’t getting lost in sand dunes, I explored Triana, a vibrant neighborhood of Sevilla tucked away on the west side of the Guadalquivir River. Encouraged by the Fulbright Program, I quickly met “intercambios,” informal language partners with whom you swap language skills. These intercambios turned into rewarding friendships. Sara welcomed me into her inner circle of close friends, and we danced until dawn during Feria, an annual festival where Sevillanos dress in stunning traditional flamenco gowns and drink rebujitos, a sweet white wine.
Sevillanos have an intense attachment to family and friends, balancing professional success with maintaining rich friendships and cultural and political awareness. Sevilla is characterized by a deep-rooted reverence for tradition and history, and a craving for the freshness of modern culture. Best exemplified by its skyline – where the Cathedral’s Giralda (an ancient mosque converted during the Catholic Reconquista) and Incarnación’s mushrooms (designed by a German architect and finished in 2011) – stand side by side in a harmonious standstill. It’s the juxtaposition of this dichotomy that make Sevilla such a richly interesting place, and an attitude that is challenging to understand if you don’t experience it firsthand. By building personal and professional relationships, I gradually began to grasp the complexity of Spain’s socio-economic climate, during a time where Andalucía faced record levels unemployment due to important financial struggles. Spaniards see only brief snippets of American issues in the media, and I have had the unique opportunity to flesh out current issues in more detail. I found that one of the best ways to foster cross cultural understanding is to engage in lively late night discussions over tapas and cervezas. I believe expressing my personal views on current issues filled important background information and cultural nuances. Conversely, my immersion in Spanish culture and new friendships challenged my own notions of the U.S. and Europe.
Back in the field, Rosa, Maria, and I head back to the Palacio, a stately home that serves as a field station for scientists. The old chapel has been converted to a library and the upstairs into twelve dormitories. Paqui, the attentive and bubbly “cocinera” greets us with strong coffee as we describe our escapades through the park. We chat as the cool darkness envelopes the park, while water fowl and wild horses scurry around the Palacio. The conversation steers towards the problems the park faces, and we fall quiet. Maria, still smiling, breaks the silence: “todos los problemas tienen soluciones.”