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EEB students take their field trip from the Andes to the Amazon

EEB students take their field trip from the Andes to the Amazon

There’s magic in the forests of Peru. Slightly larger than Ontario, this South American country is often described as a “heaven of biodiversity,” a lush and vibrant ecosphere that is, by its very nature, a place of discovery. Peru is home to 25,000 varieties of plants, 1,800 species of birds (second-largest in the world), 500 species of mammals, and more than 800 species of reptiles and amphibians. New species of wildlife are being identified every year — a night monkey, enigmatic porcupine, Junin Tapaculo bird, eight-toothed tyrannosaurus leech, two kinds of wood lizard and 10 kinds of frog in the last two years alone.

It is also a place where conservation goes head-to-head with human progress, where deforestation and mining have helped add 21 species to the endangered list in the last five years. It is, in essence, a living, breathing classroom, where explorers and adventurers have given way to the arrival of scientists and students.

Each year for the past three years, a small group of intrepid undergraduates from U of T’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology has travelled to Peru to add depth and meaning and perspective to their coursework. For two weeks, students in the department’s Tropical Field Course immerse themselves in biodiversity science and conservation in one of the most ecologically rich locations on the planet.

Their journey begins at the Wayqecha Biological Station, 3,000 metres above sea level in the cloud forests of the Andes Mountains, before descending by road and river to the Los Amigos Research Centre, nestled in the Amazon rainforest along the Madre de Dios River, a headwater tributary of the Amazon River. Throughout their trip they are face-to-flora-and-fauna with the ecology and evolutionary history of the region.

But they’re not just hacking through the jungles like Indiana Jones. Through a combination of lectures, discussions and field research projects, students broaden and deepen their understanding of how plant and animal communities develop and change between the Andes Mountains and jungles of the Amazon Basin and the impacts that humans are having on their environment.

“We studied how natural barriers, such as mountains, can affect speciation and abundance of species, as well as learning how rainforest ecology allows for great diversity and distribution of species,” says Katrine Handley Derry, a third-year Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Cinema Studies double-major. “I discovered a lot about specific plants in each region, including their distinctive adaptations to their environmental conditions. I also learned about plant-animal interdependence and its importance in the functioning of rainforest ecosystems.”

The ultimate goal of the course is to give second- and third-year undergraduate students a taste of what it means to be a tropical biologist. “Most students have heard a lot about the extraordinary biodiversity of the Amazon Basin, but in Peru they get to experience it firsthand,” says Professor Megan Frederickson. “We see hundreds of species of plants, insects and birds, and dozens of species of monkeys and other mammals. We also have group discussions about why it is that the Amazon Basin is home to so many more species than Canada, and what this means for efforts to conserve biodiversity.”

Frederickson is the driving force behind the Tropical Field Course, which is part of EEB’s Field School of Biology. The course evolved out of her years of doing field research in Peru prior to joining the faculty at U of T. “I think many students are surprised to learn that there are so many different types of ecosystems in the tropics. Before going, many students think it will be rainforest everywhere, when in fact there are also high-elevation grasslands and cloud forests and so on, each with its own distinctive plant and animal species. There are even glaciers on many Andean mountaintops.”

The trip also sheds light on the ways in which Peru’s amazing biodiversity is under threat. “The first thing many people think of when they hear about species going extinct in Amazonian rainforests is deforestation, but in the region we visit, lots of different human activities are clearly having a big impact on biodiversity, especially gold mining, but also hunting, fishing, farming and logging,” Frederickson says.

“What surprised me most about the areas we travelled to was the presence of gold mining along the Madre de Dios River,” says student Kevin Hawkshaw. “It was definitely stunning for me to see the number of gold mining operations along the river, which unfortunately are responsible in many cases for mercury release into the ecosystem and potentially the poisoning of wildlife and humans living along the river.”

Hawkshaw, a fifth-year Biology Specialist who spent the summer in northern BC studying summer nutrition in caribou, believes the practical learn-by-doing approach of the field school is invaluable. “The course involved a mix of learning about the natural history of the plants and animals we came across on our hikes, conducting small experiments, learning some basic field sampling techniques, and discussing scientific papers on the evolutionary history of the tropics,” he says. “A large portion of the course was devoted to individual presentations and additionally, each person was also responsible for conducting their own short field experiment and writing a research paper and presenting the results.”

“My favorite part was learning field techniques and how to do the research,” says Susan Gordon, a third-year Environmental Geography major with a double-minor in Environmental Biology and Political Science. “We used mist nets to catch bats and different instruments to measure plant leaf temperature, stuff like that.”

The students are also fortunate to have Frederickson’s husband, Antonio Coral, as a guide. Coral is a native of the Peruvian Amazon and has an in-depth understanding of the ecology and behavior of animals in the region. He is a bird expert, in particular, and served an advisor on the BBC wildlife documentary Life in the Undergrowth, narrated by Sir David Attenborough. “He takes the students bird watching early most mornings,” she explains. “He teaches them about identifying birds from their songs alone, and about the differences in the appearance and behavior of males and females, juveniles and adults. Because he is from the region, he can also put the local culture into context for the students and answer questions like, ‘Do people here really drink fermented yucca juice that someone spat in?’ and ‘Why don’t we eat fish here?’” (The answers, by the way are: Yes, because saliva helps speed fermentation, and because mercury used in gold mining bioaccumulates in fish.)

For most students, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “I hope that it exposes students to the challenges and opportunities of doing research in one of the most biologically fascinating but also remote and relatively unexplored (at least biologically) regions of the world,” says Frederickson. “I think many students are surprised by just how much we don’t know about Amazonian biodiversity. I also hope the course gives the students a better sense of the reality of biodiversity loss in the region.”

“This course has actually affected my plans for the future,” says Gordon. “I really wanted to get some experience before I committed to a particular career path, which was one of the biggest reasons I took this course. I wanted to make sure that I was going in the right direction with my studies, and the course did reinforce what I’m doing. It made me realize that at some point in my career, whether it’s just for a few years or for my entire career, I have to do field work.”

John Stinchcombe, the director of U of T’s Koffler Scientific Reserve who has designed and taught the Tropical Field School with Frederickson, has three hopes for the fledgling program. “Firstly, we want students to gain a firsthand appreciation of tropical forests that until this point they’ve only ever read about. Secondly, we want them to gain an appreciation for the challenges and excitement of asking research questions in the field and using sound scientific techniques to try to answer them. Thirdly, we want them to gain an appreciation for the complexity of the issues related to biodiversity and habitat protection.”

Of course, if he were to have one more hope, he says that it would be to expand the scope of the field school so that more than 20 students can participate. “I would love to make the course more accessible,” he says. “Not more students on any one trip, but more trips perhaps. That would be fantastic. After all, this is the most fun a student will ever have taking a course.”

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