Students study ecology and conservation in Ecuador & the Galápagos

Thursday, September 13, 2012 9:38:00 AM

Bird-watching in the cloud forest at Maquipicuna  Hiking the El Junco Highlands on San Cristóbal in the Galápagos Islands
LEFT: Bird-watching in the cloud forest at Maquipicuna (photo: Nicole Reed)
RIGHT: Students hiking the El Junco Highlands on San Cristóbal in the Galápagos Islands (photo: Lucy Cullen)

ENV 395Y Special Topics Field Course:
Ecology and Conservation in the Andes, Western Amazonia and the Galápagos

By Barbara Murck and Monika Havelka

"We don't need to go to lectures, we're living it." Cali - one of the fantastic students from the University of Toronto Ecuador 2012 Summer Abroad course - said this while we were hiking up the volcano Bartolomé in the Galápagos Islands, and it quickly became the quote of the month.

Very few students (and very few faculty, let's be honest) get the opportunity to visit the Galápagos, the Andes, or the Amazon. We were lucky enough to visit all three during this field
course. The trip was amazing - life-changing - for all of us, in so many ways. Swimming with sharks, sea lions, and penguins in Galápagos; bird- and butterfly-watching in the cloud forest; seeing scarlet macaws flying above the rainforest canopy from a walkway 60m above the forest floor; experiencing close-up encounters with rainforest animals such as tapirs, caiman, giant
armadillos, and pygmy marmosets; and hiking up the highest mountain near the equator (Volcán Chimborazo) were some of our personal highlights. And we got to visit the conservation icon Lonesome George - the last giant tortoise from the Pinta Island subspecies - one week before he died.

The trip was physically and mentally intense, and the ground we covered - both literally and academically - was impressive. We froze in our parkas at 5300m altitude in the Andes. We
sweated and slipped through mud avoiding wandering spiders and conga ants in the Amazon. We soaked up sun and salt and faced hammerhead sharks while snorkeling in the Pacific Ocean at the Galápagos.

Academically the breadth of the course was just as significant. With four core instructors - two of us from U of T and our Ecuadorean co-instructors, Jaime Guerra and Diego Quiroga - we covered a wide range of topics, including the geology of the Andes and the Galápagos; patterns of diversity, distribution, and adaptations of biota in Ecuador; the history of human habitation and contemporary issues affecting conservation goals and indigenous peoples; and economic development in Ecuador, including ecotourism, fisheries, and oil exploration. These core concepts were supplemented by guest lectures from researchers working on flightless cormorants, primates, bats, and a high-profile camera trap project sponsored by National Geographic. We heard from the director of the Yasuní-ITT initiative, an innovative proposal to earn carbon credits by leaving a portion of their significant oil reserves in the Amazon unexploited and underground. We visited a lab where scientists are investigating and combatting illegal shark finning using genetic testing. We also benefitted greatly from the extensive field expertise of our local guides in the national parks of Ecuador.

For the instructors, there were many "small" moments that drove home the educational value of field experiences. It's one thing to hear about trade winds and the Intertropical Convergence Zone in a classroom in Toronto. Monitoring the wind and checking the cloud cover every morning to see that yes, in the Galápagos the wind actually does blow steadily from the S-SE every day brings a whole different level of understanding. Walking upright in a lava tunnel on Floreana Island and measuring thick sequences of pyroclastics in the Andes demonstrate the power of
geologic processes in a very immediate and physical way.  The opportunity to develop and test
hypotheses on topics ranging from the effect of human presence on bird calls in the forest to a double-blind clinical trial of a natural remedy derived from rainforest plants teaches students how we "do" science in a way that cannot be experienced in a classroom.

This was an unforgettable experience that we shared with our 32 wonderful students. We arrived as strangers and left as a cohesive group bound by a set of incredible memories and experiences. Although we can't get all U of T students to the Andes, the Amazon, or the Galápagos, we can make an effort to ensure that they go outside - preferably a little bit out of their comfort zone. Ultimately, as Cali said, if we want lectures to be meaningful then we need to get away from the lecture hall sometimes, and into an environment where it all comes together and makes sense.

Dr. Barbara Murck and Dr. Monika Havelka were the instructors for the Summer 2012 ENV395Y course.  They are Senior Lecturers in the Department of Geography, University of Toronto Mississauga.

For more information, please contact them at
or visit the U of T Summer Abroad webpage.