Climate Change, Canopies and Wildlife
Alexandra Bowers, from London, was astounded by the cloud forest on her expedition to Santa Lucia Reserve, Ecuador, in July 2008.
High up in the cloud forests of Ecuador, a group of local people, scientists and volunteers are working together to contribute towards the sustainable future of this ecosystem; an ecosystem which supports thousands of species of plants, more than 300 species of birds, countless insects, around 45 mammal species, and perhaps many more which remain undiscovered. This is the Santa Lucia Cloudforest Reserve, and my destination for the next two weeks.
Journey to Santa Lucia
At our rendezvous location in Quito, the team, and a pile of backpacks, assemble - 12 volunteers with different backgrounds, origins and ages, but united here with a common commitment to conservation; our lead scientist Dr. Mika Peck and his research team from the University of Sussex; and the Ecuadorian botanists, Ana and Miguel.
From here we descend by coach from the 2850m altitude of Quito, through a volcanic landscape, across the equator into the northern hemisphere, around several hair-raising, hair-pin bends, and into an increasingly dense, tall, green forest. And until the road runs out! The rest of the journey is made by foot, in wellies of course, up a winding trail which takes us from an altitude of 1300m to 1920m, with a group of mules kindly taking up our bags. A couple of hours and several photos later, overwhelmed by my first encounter with a tropical rainforest, I arrive at the lodge of Santa Lucia, greeted with a glass of much needed home-made local fruit juice.
Exhausted already, we have the afternoon off to relax and settle into our cabanas - the view from these little wooden cabins, and the compost toilets and showers, is spectacular. Considering we are in the middle of a cloud forest, a two hour walk from the nearest road, let alone nearest village, the lodge of Santa Lucia, which appears from nowhere and sits among nothing but wilderness, is relatively self-sufficient, has everything you need, and is a heavenly retreat from everyday life.
Threats to the cloud forest
The cloud forest itself is astounding. There is almost too much to take in - the sound of birds and insects and running water, the colour of the birds and butterflies, the power of the waterfalls, the size of the leaves! And I am amazed at how everything here is so co-dependent - every tree is covered in a species of another kind, the black wasp uses the tarantula as a nest for its eggs (quite gruesome), plants depend on monkeys for seed dispersal, and the clouds are fundamental for the survival of this ecosystem. We are informed that climate change is causing the clouds to rise by 1-2m every year. What will happen to the plants that depend on this moisture? What will happen to the animals that depend on those plants?
This expedition is part of a project which recognises that these forests need to adapt to climate change. And to do that there needs to be room for species to adapt, and move to higher altitudes to keep up with the rising cloud. For this to happen, forest reserves, fragmented by deforestation, need to be connected to allow seed dispersal, and for viable populations of animals to be sustained. In addition to climate change, deforestation for agricultural expansion and mining is another pressure. The projects we work on in the reserve also aim to compare vegetation and species composition between primary forest, secondary forest and pasture.
Time is of the essence. A quick methodology for sampling the forest and the species that live there is therefore essential to record what is there now, and to monitor change. This expedition is trialling rapid sampling techniques to record birds, mammals and the forest canopy. We are divided into four groups to work on these three main projects. We are trained on the survey and sampling methodologies, before setting out into the field to start work.
My favourite project is the bird survey. Rising early, we set out at dawn with a local field biologist, on one of several trails that lead off in different directions from the lodge. The air is filled with a diversity of unfamiliar bird song. We identify and record birds we see and hear, and we soon recognise many of the main species, such as the distinctive Andean Solitaire. We encounter toucans, hummingbirds, parrots, and a variety of other colourful and vocal species. All data is entered onto the computer on return to the lodge.
We set up camera traps to record the presence of pumas, spectacled bears, and other large mammals. Pumas act as indicator species, so if they are found, it indicates that their prey species are around, which means that there is food to support the prey species etc. Camera traps are fixed to trees around the reserve, and every day a team of volunteers collect the memory card from a trap, or set up a new one. At each location, we assess the habitat characteristics to provide a context to the results. One group captures an image of a puma and a spectacled bear, which is very exciting. We also look out for these animals' tracks, and when they are found, plaster-casts are made.
The aim of this project is to identify the forest canopy from the air by formulating a key. We set up large quadrats, marking the corners by catapulting geo-markers high into the canopy, identify each canopy tree inside that quadrat, and then take an aerial image of that quadrat using a remote controlled helicopter. If this method works, then it will be possible to identify tree type over a large area, and whether it is primary or secondary forest. This project involves scrambling, sliding and climbing off the trail, into wild forest, which is good muddy fun!
There is plenty of time to relax in the hammocks on the porch of the lodge, or play cards and chat to the rest of the team, strum a few chords on the resident guitar, or brush up on some Spanish. We have a fiesta on the last night where we listen and dance to traditional live music. After dinner on most evenings we hear from local or visiting specialists about the natural history and geology of Ecuador or the local area.
On our day off, there is an option to go to an archaeological site, sleep overnight in the forest, or watch the breeding bird display (the "leck"). I choose the leck, and set off with a group at 4am, using our head-torches to guide us along the 1.5 hour walk to the site. We arrive and wait for dawn, when the Cotingas ("Cock-of-the-Rock") start their display of colour and sound and movement.
Any field diary for this expedition has to have a food section. The food is just incredible, and totally unexpected - every day, a delicious breakfast of fruit (fruit I had never heard of before) or egg or cereal, always with fresh fruit juice, and freshly baked bread or pancakes. Lunch is always soup followed by hearty rice and pulses or plantain, always welcome after a morning in the field. We have a variety of evening meals, which includes pizza, omelette, meat stews, followed by dessert - the cake is good! And there's a supply of snacks and treats for the chocoholics.
Find out more about the Earthwatch expedition Climate Change, Canopies and Wildlife.