Students' Trip to Ecuador Charts Ecological Changes in Volcanic Region

When environmental science/studies major Kevin Reyes (pictured above, right) traveled to Ecuador as part of a travel-study course, he was intrigued to discover living organisms in an area that had been previously destroyed by volcanic lava flow.

Reyes was one of eight students (including marine biology major Olmo Cinti, also pictured above, left) at the Farquhar College of Arts and Sciences who traveled to the Tungurahua volcano near Baños, Ecuador, as a component of the Travel Study course Amazonia Cloud Forest Biogeography.

Accompanying the students were associate professors Barry Barker, Ed.D., who teaches the course, and Paul Baldauf, Ph.D. 

"This is a course for students to study the biodiversity of the Amazonia Cloud Forest of Ecuador, to observe endangered and threatened species unique to this biogeographic region, and to explore the physical landscapes and cultures of Ecuador," Barker said. "Students will actively contribute to a 10-year body of knowledge that has been collected and researched through photography, field research, and wildlife conservation practices."

During the spring break trip in 2013, students conducted research and explored cultural, geographical, natural, and sustainable issues in Ecuador, including an ecological succession study at the Tungurahua volcano, which has experienced several eruptions since 1999. The succession study examines how new organisms re-populate an area after a disturbance such as lava flow.

"This active volcano has claimed some lives since coming out of its dormant state in the late 1990s," Reyes said. "Our class conducted a succession study in an area where a village was completely destroyed by lava flow. We made a 30-foot by 10-foot grid using stakes, and we began surveying the different plant and animal species that we observed."

The students walked through the gridded area and counted the different types of plants and animals.

"These are species that move into an area after a disturbance, and they can tolerate this kind of extreme environment," Baldauf said. "Everything was basically wiped out, including the soil. What's there is bare rock. The process has to start from the beginning.  Ecologists recognize spiders, ants, ferns, and lichens as pioneer species. And that's exactly what we found.  The environment may be harsh, but the minerals in this cooled lava are loaded with nutrients that plants need.

"Ecological communities change with time and changing environmental conditions. It will be interesting to see new species or new groups of organisms in the future."

Future trips through the travel-study course will build on and continue the students' work. "We brought tools to mark the area so that we can try to duplicate the approach we used and compare results each year," Baldauf said.

During the week-long visit, students stayed in a hostel in Baños, a town that thrives on eco-tourism and is about a 10-minute drive from the volcano site.

"All of the days except one were cloudy and overcast, so we couldn't get a clear view of the top of Tungurahua," Reyes said. "On the one clear day, we were able to see volcanic material spraying out of the top. This was my first time seeing this live.

"Every day we could hear the rolling thunder noises that this massive volcano made as pressure was being relieved…With the city of Baños located at the base of the volcano, it is very important to have a close monitoring system in place to warn the local population." 

"It was a great teaching environment," Baldauf said. "The students came back very energized. We can find ecosystems that have been disturbed in South Florida. But I think seeing this from a completely different ecological perspective is important."

Click here to learn more about this and other Travel Study courses offered by the college.