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2002 Field Courses

2002 Tropical Ecosystems Field Course Report

July 16 to August 8, 2002

 

Laurie, Pamela and John enjoy a misty moment of birdwatchingFrogs and snakes, frogs and snakes, I've never seen so many frogs and snakes! We set out from Quito after a quick day of shopping for field equipment -- rubber boots, machetes, ponchos -- and drove to the El Pahuma Orchid Reserve (more info). There we spent three days hiking and camping in mossy cloud forest on the flanks of Pichincha volcano. Course activities included a plant collection and identification exercise, a hike to the spectacular Yumbo trail (more info), and several night walks where we found numerous tree frogs and an array of hyper camouflaged walking sticks. Just down the trail from the Bear's Den cabin, we found evidence that a spectacled bear had been feeding on bromeliads not 300 yards from us! This vegetarian is South America's only bear, which has been listed as a threatened species due to habitat loss; El Pahuma protects over 1500 acres of habitat for these marvelous creatures.

Students find a boa constrictorFrom the chilly highlands where nightly fires and cups of tea were a necessity, we descended to visit the tropical dry forest of the Pacific coast. Along the way we passed fields of pineapple, banana, yuca, papaya, passion fruit and oil palm, and even stopped in an oil palm plantation to get a closer look at these impressive trees, and learn about the effects of intensive agriculture on tropical landscapes. Taking a left at the ocean, we arrived at Punta Prieta, where the forest meets the sea on both sides of an impressive bluff. The course spent two days learning about and exploring the dry forest, where we practiced vegetation measurement methods and and habitat characterization. We also saw our first monkeys, mantled howlers, eating leaves overhead and roaring at us. Then on the second day the students discovered a boa constrictor hiding in a shallow pond. Everyone got a close up look as Joe gave his best crocodile hunter impersonation!

Patita the Galapagos tortoiseOur "tent city" on the beach soaks in the late afternoon sunBack at Punta Prieta we enjoyed some quiet time with Patita, the resident Galapagos tortoise, and then retired to our tents on the beach to enjoy the sunset. After dinner, we analyzed the vegetation data we had collected, and listened to a lecture about tropical amphibians and reptiles. The lecture was also attended by several geckos, who patrolled the walls for stray moths, and occasionally clucked at us with their unforgettable calls. A bonfire under that stars was all we needed to end a terrific visit to the Pacific coast.

We returned to Quito, where the students enjoyed a visit to the historic section of the capital, and were treated to a lecture on Ecuadorian indigenous groups by our guest lecturer anthropologist Dr. Diego Quiroga. The following day we began our whirlwind tour of the country's fabulous altitudinal gradient from the snowy peaks of the Andes to the humid forests of the Amazon! We began at Virgen del Soccorro pass, over 14,000 feet above sea level, where the driving winds whipped sleet into our eyes and cold gusts under our ponchos as we collected measurements on climatic factors and biological responses. As a treat, we then took lunch at the Papallacta hot springs, where volcanically heated water feeds soothing swimming pools. After an excellent lunch of fresh trout, we headed on down the mountains, passing waterfalls and huge cliffs on the way, watching as the forest gradually changed: taller and more diverse the further down we went.

Our first Javier Robayo using a net to collect pasture insectsexperience in the lowland forest came at the Jatun Sacha biological reserve, a fragment that has been diligently protected by a local conservation organization and international volunteers. We learned insect collection techniques all morning, then put them into action in the afternoon as we conducted a comparison between pasture, forest and forest edge insects. We found some intriguing bugs, including several iridescent orchid bees attracted to scents we set out; they collect flower scents for later use in courtship, a natural perfume! The following morning, we enjoyed our first real day of birdwatching, and were treated to a mixed-species flock of tanagers, feeding on fruits with toucans and barbets. Impressive sight, for those not still snoring in their beds!

A heavy rain greeted us in the middle of the night, as we soggily loaded our bus and got under way. 13 hours later, after the bus, 2 canoes and a "ranchera" (typical Ecuadorian open-sided bus that lets all the dust in!), we arrived at the Tiputini Biodiversity Station (more info), in the heart of the upper Amazon basin, across from the enormous Yasuní national park. Tiputini is one of the most diverse places I have ever visited, perhaps since it is located smack in the middle of one of the presumed pleistocene biodiversity "refuges", and it certainly lived up to its reputation this year! We saw 5 more species of monkeys (raising our course total to 7!) and glimpsed a pod of rare pink river dolphins carousing in the Tiputini river.

Ant-mimicking spider ... those aren't antennae!Among our many interesting finds at Tiputini was an ant-mimicking spider (one was actually first discovered in the dry forest by John "eagle eyes" Madek). This eight-legged spider imitates an ant by holding its front legs out over its head like antennae ... a neat trick (see photo)! We also got a terrific look at a three-toed sloth, happily munching leaves in a tree overhead as we performed chemical analysis on a black water river. We even saw a fresh water ray swim by as we took visibility measurements with a secchi disk!

Diego and Javier processing leaf samplesFor three days, the students worked on individual or group projects, putting to use all the field techniques they had learned and practiced during the course so far. John and Kelly studied the frogs of the Tiputini station's forest types, while Pamela and John tested the feeding behavior of lake fish. Diego and Javier, this year's scholarship students (more info), examined the effect of bark characteristics on the epiphyte load of trees. Ant gardens were the subject of Laurie and Lauren's project, where ants carry seeds that germinate to grow into plants that provide both food and housing! Spiny caterpillars prickled the interest of Jill and Jacob and Jessie, who tested whether spineless caterpillars were attacked by predators more commonly than spiny ones.

Large anaconda, staring at our cameraPamela Scorza ascends into the canopyWe celebrated our final day at Tiputini with a long float on the river, where we saw an incredible anaconda, one of the world's largest snakes, that had come out on a sunny afternoon to warm up after days of rain. On the same float trip, we saw several troops of monkeys, including acrobatic spider monkeys leaping from tree to tree. Back at the research station, everyone enjoyed Spectacular leap through the canopy by an agile Spider Monkey!a thrilling rope climb up to the top of one of Tiputini's largest Ceiba trees (more info). Using gear designed for canopy study, our students hauled themselves step by step up into the leafy heights of this giant tree, then rappelled speedily back down as the first tinges of the sunset reached us. The following day we headed out, greeted by the sounds of the forest awakening as we cruised steadily upriver in our giant canoe. Along the way back, we passed numerous Ceiba trees along the Napo River, before arriving in the frontier town of Coca, where we caught our flight back to Quito.

The last day of the course was spent shopping at the traditional artisan market in Otavalo, a highland town populated by native Quichua indians, descendants of the Incas. The high elevation landscape was delightful to see, and everyone was glad to be in cool dry air after more than a week in the damp, warm lowlands! After completing an impressive species list for the course, we got dressed up for our celebratory final dinner in Quito. There we were treated to the music of the Andean highlands by a traditional trio playing a guitar, a quena (bamboo flute), pan pipes, and a charango, the local version of a mandolin. A few group photos later, and we were back in the hotel saying our goodbyes and laughing about our adventures. Students started leaving at the painful hour of 4 am (!) the next day, amid some sleepy-eyed final hugs, and soon everyone was on their way, dreaming of monkeys and spiders, frogs and snakes, on the plane ride home.

 

(Special thanks to Jill McLaughlin for use of her photographs).

 






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