FLORENCE – What began as biodiversity training and research for faculty and students of Francis Marion University and the University of North Carolina Wilmington two years ago has resulted in plans for the construction of a new biological station at Wildsumaco Wildlife Sanctuary, on the east slope of the Andes in Ecuador.
The 12,560 foot Sumaco Volcano, the last major mountain before reaching the Amazon basin, makes the nearly 5,000 foot sanctuary home to one of the world's highest levels of biodiversity.
From visits in December 2008 and 2009 by FMU and UNCW students were birthed several scientific papers and presentations. As a result of the studies, the initial phase of what will be known as Wildsumaco Biological Station is underway. It entails the construction of a parking area and clearing of the site. Funding for the project was provided by FMU and UNCW.
Wildsumaco Biological Station will be operated as a partnership with Wildsumaco Wildlife Sanctuary. FMU serves as the lead academic institution, and is collaborating with UNCW in developing scientific and educational programs for the station.
“FMU is proud to partner with UNCW in building and sustaining this unique facility,” said FMU President Luther F. Carter. “It will provide a superb teaching, learning and research laboratory for our faculty and students.”
Travis Knowles is director of the station and assistant provost and associate professor of biology at FMU. UNCW Professor Brian Arbogast, Ph.D. is the primary scientific adviser and assistant station director.
The biological station will be built using concrete block construction. It will initially consist of two buildings: a dormitory-style housing unit with bunk beds and shared bathrooms, with a capacity to house 18 people; and a combined kitchen, dining and lecture-laboratory building.
The construction and development of the station have far-reaching implications for teaching, research, and the conservation of biodiversity, said Knowles.
“This is an unprecedented opportunity for students and faculty members to engage in firsthand educational and scientific research at the hottest of hotspots for biodiversity in the world,” Knowles said. “The potential for scientific study, including biodiversity inventories, new species discovery, and rainforest ecology is simply phenomenal.”
In fact, the station site is close to Sumaco-Napo Galeras National Park and sits within the larger Tropical Andes region, which is described by Conservation International as “the richest and most diverse region on Earth.”
“This is one of the most species-rich areas on the entire planet and home to many endemic and vulnerable species, including spectacled bear and white-bellied spider monkey,” said Knowles.
Recent research by faculty and students from FMU and UNCW has revealed that the area may be home to the highest density of margays, which are small, spotted jungle cats, ever documented. Knowles said future work will focus on population dynamics and ecological characteristics of margays, about which very little is known.
FMU students participating in summer field experiences at the station will have the opportunity to work alongside professional scientists, and gain firsthand experience studying tropical ecology and biodiversity. They will also have the opportunity to meet local citizens from Ecuador, including native Quechua language speakers, offering a rich cultural experience to complement the science.
The Wildsumaco Sanctuary was started by Jim and Bonnie Olson and Jonas Nilsson, who has lived in Ecuador for nearly 20 years. Associated with the sanctuary are the Wildsumaco Lodge, which caters to bird watchers, and the Rio Pucuno Foundation.
The sanctuary was established to support birding ecotourism and forest conservation in the eastern Andean foothills of Ecuador. These mid-elevation forests in the Andes have had very little scientific exploration or research, compared to low elevation rainforest sites, Knowles said.