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Claudia’s Travel Blog: A Research Excursion through Armenia

Fri., Aug. 6, 2021

By Claudia Victoroff, MS, Graduate Student

When you think of the country Armenia, what comes to mind? Maybe you know of a few famous Armenians, such as Cher or the Kardashians. More importantly, you may know that President Biden recently became the first U.S. president to acknowledge the Armenian genocide, which began in 1915. What you might not know is that Armenia is an ancient and yet contemporary civilization situated within a biodiversity hotspot, the Caucasus Mountain range. The region is home to more than 6000 species of plants, 153 species of mammals and 400 species of birds, some of which are endemic (or exclusive) to Armenia. Armenia is home to large stretches of undisturbed primary forests and the Armenian people have a long history of land stewardship, and of intimate connection with the unique and beautiful landscape.

In July I travelled to Armenia, along with three other American Armenians, for a field excursion with a small group of Armenian biologists. Together we form the International Congress of Armenian Mycologists (ICAM). We are a network of research scientists of Armenian ethnicity allied in the mission of biological, ecological, and social welfare for all Armenian life. Because fungi are understudied worldwide, and Armenia has been home to a relatively low proportion of that research, we aim to describe new species and accrue data for answering critical ecological and evolutionary questions. In July we conducted scientific research on fungal diversity and forest ecology. We collected and identified lichens, mushrooms, and other fungi to record fungal biodiversity in the region. We collected soil samples from across the country to analyze the soil organisms (fungi and bacteria) in the different ecoregions of Armenia. In this issue of Science on Friday I’m going to tell you about our research trip with the hopes that learn a bit about Armenia along the way! This reflection may read like a travel blog, but I figure when else will most of you read about a research excursion around Armenia! 

We began our trip in Yerevan, Armenia’s capitol city. Yerevan is a hub for art, music, dancing, and culture. While there we visited a few museums including the Yerevan History Museum, Tsitsernakaberd (the Armenian genocide museum and memorial) and Matenadaran (the museum of ancient scripts). We also visited lots of great restaurants! After meeting with our collaborators in Armenia via zoom for the last 10 months, it was a relief to sit down and share a meal! Our itinerary was developed by our friend and colleague Dr. Arsen Gasparyan, who is not only a brilliant scientist, but a fierce advocate for conservation and sustainable development in Armenia!

From Yerevan our group headed north, stopping near the town of Hankavan where we collected our first samples. While most of our group scoured the ground and trees for lichens and fungi, I collected soil samples using a bulb planter that I brought all the way from the U.S.! While the dry soil in Hankavan meant that few mushrooms were growing, our group had fun getting to know each other while hiking through the woods. After a nearly 7-mile hike through Hankavan we were ready for a break! We rested at a natural hot spring and had a lunch of fresh veggies, Armenian flat bread called lavash, and (of course) kebab.

From Hankavan we traveled north to the town of Dilijan and to Dilijan National Park. While the southern half of Armenia is relatively arid, the northern half is extremely lush. Driving through the mountains towards Dilijan the fog was so thick that we had very low visibility! In Dilijan we hiked the Hidden Waterfall trail. The cool and humid forest was exploding with life, and we found a broad diversity of lichens and mushrooms! The forest was mostly composed of oriental beech trees (Fagus orientalis). The beech species native to the U.S. (American beech, or Fagus grandifolia) is one of my favorite trees, so I was happy to see all those beautiful beech trees! Of all the areas we visited in Armenia, Dilijan National Park should not be missed!

From Dilijan we traveled south, stopping at some cultural and natural landmarks including the Haghartsin Monestary complex which was built between the 10th and 13th centuries! Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity, so many of the cultural landmarks throughout the country are chapels and monasteries. We also stopped at Lake Sevan, a large and beautiful lake in central Armenia that is surrounded by mountains, and Sevanavank, a monestary on the coast of the lake. We traveled south following the historic path of the silk road, stopping at an ancient structure that once housed traders on their journey.

Our eventual destination was Artavan, an incredible town in the mountains of the Vayots Dzor province. In Artavan we traveled deep into the mountains to sample mushrooms and soil in forests primarily composed of oak (Quercus iberica and Quercus macranthera)and juniper (Juniperus polycarpos) trees. Thankfully we had local drivers with experience navigating the rough terrain! When we returned to camp for the night, we were treated to the hospitality that Armenians are known for! Our host, Garnik, and his family prepared us tons of food! We celebrated our newfound friendships around a bonfire and said cheers (or in Armenian, genatz) to our friendly hosts! In the morning we were sad to leave Artavan but the adventures were about to continue!

After a long day sampling in Artavan we were ready for a day off. Luckily for us, Day 4 of our journey happened to be the Armenian holiday, Vardavar! Originally a pagan celebration, Vardavar celebrates the goddess Astghik, goddess of beauty, love, and water! Armenians celebrate by splashing each other mercilessly with water throughout the day. We bought water guns and had a full-fledged water fight! Another highlight of our day off was visiting Areni-1 cave and having a wine tasting at the Areni winery. The Areni-1 cave is a large, partially excavated cavern where the oldest human shoe (5,500 years old!) and the earliest known winery were discovered! In the evening we traveled back to Yerevan where the Vardavar celebration was still very active!

As a Holden PhD student, it was important for me to connect with other young scientists during my trip. We spent the next two days in Yerevan, connecting with biologists at the Botany Institute of Armenia, which is located at the Yerevan Botanical Garden, and at Yerevan State University. I was extremely grateful to get to know the PhD students working at the Institute of Botany and we made fast friends over coffee and gata (a beloved Armenian dessert!). Importantly, the collections from our trips are housed in the Yerevan Botanical Garden, contributing to the beginnings of a fungal herbarium there. We hope the housing our collections in Yerevan will give Armenian biologist the opportunity to use them for years to come!

After two days in Yerevan, it was time to get back on the road! We traveled north to the province Lori where we had lunch in the town Vanadzor, which is the third largest city in Armenia and was largely built during the Soviet era. We traveled from Vanadzor to Margahovit where again we were lucky to have local drivers take us up 8,500 feet up a mountain so that I could sample soil from Rhododendron caucasicum in the alpine region! Driving up switchbacks on the edge of the very foggy mountain had a few of us nervous, but our drivers seemed extremely confident as they maneuvered around rocks, streams, and cows! After getting down off the mountain we had dinner at a local brewery and tasted some beers brewed in the Lori province!

On our final day in the field, we visited the Stepanavan Dendropark, which is a gorgeous collection of trees from around the world, brought to Armenia in the 1930s by the polish engineer/forester Edmund Leonowicz. Half of the arboretum contains trees brought to the park, where half is a natural forest and one of Armenia’s only remaining native pine forests! When we were in Hankavan I had sampled soil from a pine plantation, where Pinus sylvestris has been planted in a monoculture as an attempt for reforestation. I was happy to sample at a native pine stand because I hope to compare differences in soil microbes between a native and a planted pine forest!

We returned to Yerevan and spent one last day together in Armenia, ending in a lovely dinner at the Yerevan Tavern. We all felt extremely grateful for one another, though the dinner was melancholy knowing we were about to part ways. Armenia is home to a beautiful and unique landscape and inspired Armenian scientists are working to understand and conserve that landscape every day. This trip was meant to serve as the beginning of sustained collaboration between Armenian scientists from the diaspora and those living in Armenia. Now having returned to the U.S. I think we accomplished that and more. I hope with all my heart that we can look forward to a career worth of collaboration and a lifetime worth of friendship.

You can follow our organization, ICAM, on twitter at @IC_ArmenianMyco, on Instagram at @ic_armenian_mycologists, or through our website, https://icarmenian-mycologists.github.io/

Thank you for re

When you think of the country Armenia, what comes to mind? Maybe you know of a few famous Armenians, such as Cher or the Kardashians. More importantly, you may know that President Biden recently became the first U.S. president to acknowledge the Armenian genocide, which began in 1915. What you might not know is that Armenia is an ancient and yet contemporary civilization situated within a biodiversity hotspot, the Caucasus Mountain range. The region is home to more than 6000 species of plants, 153 species of mammals and 400 species of birds, some of which are endemic (or exclusive) to Armenia. Armenia is home to large stretches of undisturbed primary forests and the Armenian people have a long history of land stewardship, and of intimate connection with the unique and beautiful landscape.

In July I travelled to Armenia, along with three other American Armenians, for a field excursion with a small group of Armenian biologists. Together we form the International Congress of Armenian Mycologists (ICAM). We are a network of research scientists of Armenian ethnicity allied in the mission of biological, ecological, and social welfare for all Armenian life. Because fungi are understudied worldwide, and Armenia has been home to a relatively low proportion of that research, we aim to describe new species and accrue data for answering critical ecological and evolutionary questions. In July we conducted scientific research on fungal diversity and forest ecology. We collected and identified lichens, mushrooms, and other fungi to record fungal biodiversity in the region. We collected soil samples from across the country to analyze the soil organisms (fungi and bacteria) in the different ecoregions of Armenia. In this issue of Science on Friday I’m going to tell you about our research trip with the hopes that learn a bit about Armenia along the way! This reflection may read like a travel blog, but I figure when else will most of you read about a research excursion around Armenia! 

We began our trip in Yerevan, Armenia’s capitol city. Yerevan is a hub for art, music, dancing, and culture. While there we visited a few museums including the Yerevan History Museum, Tsitsernakaberd (the Armenian genocide museum and memorial) and Matenadaran (the museum of ancient scripts). We also visited lots of great restaurants! After meeting with our collaborators in Armenia via zoom for the last 10 months, it was a relief to sit down and share a meal! Our itinerary was developed by our friend and colleague Dr. Arsen Gasparyan, who is not only a brilliant scientist, but a fierce advocate for conservation and sustainable development in Armenia!

From Yerevan our group headed north, stopping near the town of Hankavan where we collected our first samples. While most of our group scoured the ground and trees for lichens and fungi, I collected soil samples using a bulb planter that I brought all the way from the U.S.! While the dry soil in Hankavan meant that few mushrooms were growing, our group had fun getting to know each other while hiking through the woods. After a nearly 7-mile hike through Hankavan we were ready for a break! We rested at a natural hot spring and had a lunch of fresh veggies, Armenian flat bread called lavash, and (of course) kebab.

From Hankavan we traveled north to the town of Dilijan and to Dilijan National Park. While the southern half of Armenia is relatively arid, the northern half is extremely lush. Driving through the mountains towards Dilijan the fog was so thick that we had very low visibility! In Dilijan we hiked the Hidden Waterfall trail. The cool and humid forest was exploding with life, and we found a broad diversity of lichens and mushrooms! The forest was mostly composed of oriental beech trees (Fagus orientalis). The beech species native to the U.S. (American beech, or Fagus grandifolia) is one of my favorite trees, so I was happy to see all those beautiful beech trees! Of all the areas we visited in Armenia, Dilijan National Park should not be missed!

From Dilijan we traveled south, stopping at some cultural and natural landmarks including the Haghartsin Monestary complex which was built between the 10th and 13th centuries! Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity, so many of the cultural landmarks throughout the country are chapels and monasteries. We also stopped at Lake Sevan, a large and beautiful lake in central Armenia that is surrounded by mountains, and Sevanavank, a monestary on the coast of the lake. We traveled south following the historic path of the silk road, stopping at an ancient structure that once housed traders on their journey.

Our eventual destination was Artavan, an incredible town in the mountains of the Vayots Dzor province. In Artavan we traveled deep into the mountains to sample mushrooms and soil in forests primarily composed of oak (Quercus iberica and Quercus macranthera)and juniper (Juniperus polycarpos) trees. Thankfully we had local drivers with experience navigating the rough terrain! When we returned to camp for the night, we were treated to the hospitality that Armenians are known for! Our host, Garnik, and his family prepared us tons of food! We celebrated our newfound friendships around a bonfire and said cheers (or in Armenian, genatz) to our friendly hosts! In the morning we were sad to leave Artavan but the adventures were about to continue!

After a long day sampling in Artavan we were ready for a day off. Luckily for us, Day 4 of our journey happened to be the Armenian holiday, Vardavar! Originally a pagan celebration, Vardavar celebrates the goddess Astghik, goddess of beauty, love, and water! Armenians celebrate by splashing each other mercilessly with water throughout the day. We bought water guns and had a full-fledged water fight! Another highlight of our day off was visiting Areni-1 cave and having a wine tasting at the Areni winery. The Areni-1 cave is a large, partially excavated cavern where the oldest human shoe (5,500 years old!) and the earliest known winery were discovered! In the evening we traveled back to Yerevan where the Vardavar celebration was still very active!

As a Holden PhD student, it was important for me to connect with other young scientists during my trip. We spent the next two days in Yerevan, connecting with biologists at the Botany Institute of Armenia, which is located at the Yerevan Botanical Garden, and at Yerevan State University. I was extremely grateful to get to know the PhD students working at the Institute of Botany and we made fast friends over coffee and gata (a beloved Armenian dessert!). Importantly, the collections from our trips are housed in the Yerevan Botanical Garden, contributing to the beginnings of a fungal herbarium there. We hope the housing our collections in Yerevan will give Armenian biologist the opportunity to use them for years to come!

After two days in Yerevan, it was time to get back on the road! We traveled north to the province Lori where we had lunch in the town Vanadzor, which is the third largest city in Armenia and was largely built during the Soviet era. We traveled from Vanadzor to Margahovit where again we were lucky to have local drivers take us up 8,500 feet up a mountain so that I could sample soil from Rhododendron caucasicum in the alpine region! Driving up switchbacks on the edge of the very foggy mountain had a few of us nervous, but our drivers seemed extremely confident as they maneuvered around rocks, streams, and cows! After getting down off the mountain we had dinner at a local brewery and tasted some beers brewed in the Lori province!

On our final day in the field, we visited the Stepanavan Dendropark, which is a gorgeous collection of trees from around the world, brought to Armenia in the 1930s by the polish engineer/forester Edmund Leonowicz. Half of the arboretum contains trees brought to the park, where half is a natural forest and one of Armenia’s only remaining native pine forests! When we were in Hankavan I had sampled soil from a pine plantation, where Pinus sylvestris has been planted in a monoculture as an attempt for reforestation. I was happy to sample at a native pine stand because I hope to compare differences in soil microbes between a native and a planted pine forest!

We returned to Yerevan and spent one last day together in Armenia, ending in a lovely dinner at the Yerevan Tavern. We all felt extremely grateful for one another, though the dinner was melancholy knowing we were about to part ways. Armenia is home to a beautiful and unique landscape and inspired Armenian scientists are working to understand and conserve that landscape every day. This trip was meant to serve as the beginning of sustained collaboration between Armenian scientists from the diaspora and those living in Armenia. Now having returned to the U.S. I think we accomplished that and more. I hope with all my heart that we can look forward to a career worth of collaboration and a lifetime worth of friendship.

You can follow our organization, ICAM, on twitter at @IC_ArmenianMyco, on Instagram at @ic_armenian_mycologists, or through our website, https://icarmenian-mycologists.github.io/

Thank you for reading! I hope you learned a bit about Armenia!

Claudia Victoroff, MS

Claudia Victoroff, MS

Graduate Student

As a PhD student in the Burke lab, my research is focused on ectomycorrhizal fungi in forest ecosystems. I am passionate about coupling field collections with molecular identification methods to investigate ectomycorrhizal species diversity. My PhD research is focused on investigating ectomycorrhizal fungal communities in forests with different land use and disturbance histories. I am particularly interested in the functional roles that fungi with distinct life history strategies fill in soil, and in symbiosis with their plant partners. My masters research investigated ectomycorrhizal fungal fruiting responses to nitrogen and phosphorus additions in Bartlett Experimental Forest, New Hampshire.

Learn more about me

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