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Seventeen days in Ecuador: Department of Biological Sciences’ tropical field studies tour

Posted: Sep 07, 2012

Waiting for canoe transport at dawn, Napo River, Amazon rainforest, Ecuador (Photo by Danny Ernest)

Hundreds of sneezing marine iguanas. Biology major Christy Sawdon ’13 of Williamston, Mich., remembers that snapshot of Ecuador — a country about the size of Colorado and one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet.

Christy and nine more Olivet students spent 17 days discovering Ecuador’s ecological and cultural wonders in the summer of 2012. Leading the group were Dr. Randy Johnson and Dr. Leo Finkenbinder of the Department of Biological Sciences, and Dr. Johnson’s wife, Peggy.

Antisana volcano and the páramo, northern Andes Mountains

One of the coldest, wettest places in Ecuador, the páramo is a valley between two mountain ranges.

“I had to stop and catch my breath a few times,” Christy recalls about hiking in the higher altitude and through dense vegetation.

A zoological highlight was the group's sighting of three Andean condors. Only about 60 remain in the entire country.

Galapagos Islands

Giant tortoises are a common sight in the Galapagos. At Darwin Station, the group saw Lonesome George, a 100-year-old tortoise and the last of his species. Just two weeks later, the news came that this tortoise had died.

“Our students know firsthand what it means for a species to disappear,” Dr. Johnson observed.

Sam Craven ’13 — a biology and biochemistry major from Frankfort, Ill. — went scuba diving in the Pacific.

“When I started my second dive with Dr. Finkenbinder, a sea lion was swimming around us,” Sam says. “He stayed with us for the entire dive.”

Yasuni National Park, Amazon region

Next stop was the Amazon rainforest. After a two-and-one-half-hour canoe trip on the Napo River, a tributary of the Amazon, the group arrived at the Kichwa tribe’s field station.

The following day, a two-hour hike took them to a treetop canopy formed by kapok trees. Around sunset, squawking scarlet macaws flew over.

About 8 p.m., group members got out their headlamps and went on a hike. “When we shined light at the ground, we saw the glowing green eyes of hundreds of spiders,” Christy says.

Santa Lucia Field Station, cloud forest reserve 

There was no road to their next location, the Santa Lucia Field Station. Burros carried the backpacks as the group hiked in.

“When I stood on the equator, I marveled that exactly one year ago to the day, Dr. Johnson and I had stood on the Arctic Circle during Olivet’s first biology research trip to Alaska,” says Dr. Finkenbinder.

Leaving at 4 a.m. the next day, group members hiked for two hours to witness the mating ritual of the Cock-of-the-Rock birds. As the sun came up, they heard the loud, long, eerie screeching sounds of the males flying into the lek [meeting place for male and female birds].

“That sound was like nothing I’ve ever heard and so loud we couldn’t even talk. We sat there for an hour and just listened,” says Christy.

While Dr. Finkenbinder recorded that location with his GPS, the rest of the group recorded the sights and sounds of Ecuador in their memories.

View photos of trip highlights, taken by Danny Ernest ’13 (biology major, Plainfield, Ill.), here.

Watch a video of ziplining in the canopy, taken by Sam Craven, here.