2001 Tropical Ecosystems Field Course Report
July 11 to August 2, 2001
Thirteen students from the USA, Holland, Canada, Colombia and
Ecuador united on July 11th, 2001 in Quito for this year's Tropical Ecosystems:
Andes to Amazon field course. Here are some of the highlights, illustrated by
photos taken by the instructors and students!
Everyone gets tired on the strenuous uphill hike through the mist to the Guarida
del Oso with all our food and equipment! Translated into the "Bear's Den",
this rustic cabin located high on the mist-shrouded slopes of the El Pahuma Orchid
Reserve is the first place we stay after leaving the comfort of our Quito hotel.
Besides learning how to identify some of the common cloud forest plant families, we
identified a new bird to add to the El Pahuma list: the Tawny Antpitta (Grallaria
The early morning mist glided through enormous Tree Ferns, giving
the Pahuma mountainside a serene and ghostly appearance. Three intrepid hikers
pose with the usual equipment of camera, binoculars, backpacks, and dirty field clothes!
As we descended the Pacific slope of the Andes, we stopped to check out a mature plantation
of African Oil Palm (Elaeis africana) and discuss this species' economic importance
and environmental impact in the tropics.
By late afternoon the same day we were at Punta Prieta, on the sandy shores of
the Pacific Ocean, setting up tents in the sand for our 3 day stay in the coastal
dry forest. A highly threatened ecosystem, much of Ecuador's tropical dry forest
has been cut down to make way for pastures. We all got the rare opportunity
to see an all-white Ghost Bat, which was living in one of the Punta Prieta cabins.
After a relaxing swim in the ocean and a heated game of sand soccer, we reconvened
in our seaside classroom to analyze the day's vegetation sampling data, followed by
a delicious dinner of fresh fish and vegetables. Our last night on the coast
was highlighted by a bonfire on the beach. Alonso, our host, lit one of his "Bolas
de Fuego" (balls of fire), a crepe-paper hot-air balloon, and released it into
the night sky where we watched it disappear over the Pacific.
After a day of rest in Quito, we embarked on our journey to the Amazon, with our
first stop being the Polylepis woodland high in the Andes mountains.
Our study of changes in climate and vegetation with altitude began at nearly 5000
m, in the Cotocachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve.
Our next study site was the Jatun Sacha Biological Station in the lowland rainforests
of the expansive Amazon basin. Here we learned 11 major orders of insects and
sampled them along a gradient from forest interior to pasture. Later our samples were
sorted and identified at the lab, where we practiced using taxonomic keys to identify
some of the more obscure specimens.
On a trip to the Quichua community of Cachi Huañusca, on the other side
of the Napo river, we learned about the medicinal plants used by the Quichua and helped
them plant a crop of yuca (Manihot esculenta). They welcomed us with music,
dancing and chicha! We also got to test our marksmanship with a Haorani blowgun,
with which we were soon firing dart after dart into an unsuspecting banana inflorescence,
our target for the afternoon!.
After 16 hours of travel by bus and canoe, we finally arrived at the Tiputini
Biodiversity. Upon sensing the wild remoteness of the green realm we had entered,
no one complained that the trip was too long and with eyes and ears open we began
our stay with an 11 kilometer hike through the rainforest the next morning.
Our species list grew rapidly. 10 species of monkeys were seen,
including the rare Monk Saki (photo below taken in 2000) and nocturnal Owl Monkeys.
We also got excellent looks at Golden-Mantled Tamarins, Spider Monkeys, Dusky Titis
and Woolley Monkeys, some of which were seen from TBS' canopy walkway system.
Several students had the opportunity to assist Dr. Terry Erwin of
the Smithsonian (front right) and his entomology crew on an early morning of canopy
fogging to sample insect diversity. Terry's work at Tiputini has been responsible
for a dramatic upward revision of the estimated number of total insect species that
may exist in the world: his work in the rainforest canopy has revealed previously
unimaginable diversity in the tree tops, and he estimates there may be as many as
20 million insect species on the planet!
This year's student projects included army ant pheromone trail directionality
and specificity, leaf cutter ant foraging preferences, the relative importance of
floral scent versus color as attractants to Hymenoptera, vertical gradients in abiotic
conditions from forest floor to canopy, the effect of drip tips on leaf drying time
and debris accummulation, and an instructor-led study of the effect of artificial
nest position on predation rates. Students conducted field work during 3-4 of
the final days at Tiputini, and we concluded with a Symposium in which each group
presented their findings to the course.
up the Tiputini River on our early morning canoe trip a young Brazilian Tapir was
spooked into the riverbank vegetation by the sound of the canoe's motor. While
it all happened too fast to get the camera ready, a little later we were treated by
the unique site of a Tamandua, a new-world anteater, swimming across the river!
Joe had time to catch this gorgeous creature on film as it emerged from the swift
current by scrambling up the vegetation on the far banks (see right). Although
these beautiful animals spend much of their time in trees, they are adept at swimming
across the many rivers that crisscross the Amazon forest.
On our last day in Ecuador, we enjoyed the colorful sights and sounds of the Otavalo
market. To celebrate a successful course and bid farewell to our new-found friends
with whom we shared this life-changing experience, we dined on Ecuadorian cuisine
to the songs of the Andean altiplano.