By Joy Davis
Deep in the rainforests of Ecuador is a land whose wild sights and sounds have remained virtually untouched by modern civilization - a lush paradise where jungle cats stalk their prey, rare reptiles slither, peculiar insects crawl and more than 500 species of colorful birds soar above.
At close to 5,000 feet in altitude on the east slope of the
Andes Mountains, the Wildsumaco Wildlife Sanctuary - the site of
one of UNCW's newest labs - is a hotbed of research opportunities
where students are paving the way for their dream jobs and
exploring a world beyond their wildest imaginations.
Journeying into the great unknown
In 2008, Francis Marion University (FMU) associate professor of biology Travis Knowles invited UNCW associate professor of biology Brian Arbogast to explore research opportunities with him in Ecuador.
"Sumaco is one of the richest and most diverse regions on Earth," Knowles said. "This biological wealth, coupled with the fact that the region has had very little scientific study, makes it a stunning location for biodiversity and ecological research."
After seeing Wildsumaco for himself that December, Arbogast invited UNCW graduate student Anne-Marie Hodge to scout research possibilities in the area. Hodge, who holds a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, decided to pursue a master's in biology at UNCW after learning about Wildsumaco from Arbogast at a research conference.
"The chance to work in an area that hadn't been surveyed before was very exciting," Hodge said. "There are researchers with decades of experience who never get this type of opportunity."
The unique wildcats of the Wildsumaco jungle, including the pumas, margays and ocelots, offered Hodge the perfect opportunity to explore her passion for carnivores. Hodge said carnivores are "the wobbly block at the top of the food chain," noting that while most people view the predators as strong creatures, their survival depends on the health of everything below them, including a large supply of land and food.
"Carnivores are a good indicator of the stability of their environment. The same thing that makes them dominate also makes them vulnerable. If an environment changes, they are the first to suffer," she said.
On her first trip to Wildsumaco in 2009, Hodge installed a system of non-invasive camera traps to study interactions among the diverse creatures of the Ecuadorian jungle. Her cameras captured a reality show of jungle mating, eating and sleeping habits 24 hours a day. The small but deadly margay quickly emerged as the star and became the focus of Hodge's research.
"When I got to the camera footage, it felt like Christmas. We had margays coming out of our ears," she said. "We didn't expect to see that. It was a great opportunity because so little is known about them."
Her camera traps were an ideal way to research the margay, an animal who Hodge said is difficult to study because of its small size (30-45 cm. tall), its tendency to hide in canopies, and, above all, its nocturnal predatory habits. According to Hodge, the wide-eyed margays are "on the track to being endangered" due to their sensitivity to forest fragmentation and over-hunting. The jungle cat's smooth, spotted leopard-like fur is of high value to traders.
"A lot of endangered species are highly studied. It's really great to examine an animal that almost no one knows about," Hodge said.
Exploring uncharted territory
"It was a no-brainer to offer more students the chance to develop projects in Wildsumaco," said Arbogast. "The research possibilities would be endless. The area had never been inventoried and we expected to find more and more new and rare species."
But, there was a problem - the isolated Wildsumaco offered few accommodations for researchers.
On their first trips, students and faculty operated out of the Wildsumaco Wildlife Sanctuary. Owned and preserved by Bonnie and Jim Olson and their friend Jonas Nilsson, the sanctuary is home to a lodge for bird watching enthusiasts nestled between two Ecuadorian villages. When UNCW and FMU began discussing long-term research possibilities, the Olsons and Nilsson volunteered to inexpensively lease their land so a field station could be built. FMU offered to sponsor the station, and a three-way partnership between UNCW, FMU and the sanctuary was born.
"We're excited about being able to help provide an increased number of students with the opportunity to learn first-hand about tropical biodiversity of the Sumaco area. With this knowledge we hope to better protect it," Bonnie Olson said.
Trailblazing a new frontier
By the time construction on the 2,000-square-foot Wildsumaco Biological Station began in the spring of 2011, Hodge's labors were yielding significant fruit. In less than two years, she had documented one-third of Ecuador's terrestrial carnivores within a five-square-kilometer area - the first ever recorded scientific survey of the area's numerous predators.
"Not only am I getting to study the margay, my camera survey captured the first verified records of several species at the site, including the jaguarundi and ocelot," said Hodge.
Hodge presented her preliminary findings at last year's annual meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology. She is finalizing her graduate thesis based on her fieldwork in Wildsumaco. She hopes that environmentalists can better protect the margay with the help of her findings about the species interaction with its environment.
"The opportunity to work at this site is what brought me to UNCW, and I think having this station will help attract more students in the future," she said.
FMU and UNCW continue to use Hodge's 20 camera traps to investigate the biodiversity of Wildsumaco.
The doors to the new Wildsumaco Biological Station opened in January 2012. The simple but comfortable facilities, owned by lead academic partner FMU and maintained by the Sanctuary, consist of three concrete-block buildings, which can house up to 18 people and are equipped with electricity.
"We envision it as a place where multiple cultures will meet, including the indigenous population and faculty and students from all over the world," Arbogast said.
Wildsumaco researchers regularly interact with local Ecuadorian citizens, and have collaborated extensively with scientific colleagues from Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador and Sumaco National Park. Although biological research will continue to expand in the area, the station was built with interdisciplinary collaborations in mind. The team hopes Wildsumaco will one day be a hub of research for students and faculty from fields of social work, education, nursing, Spanish and more.
"Research is an inherently collaborative effort," said FMU's Knowles. "We rely on the expertise of others constantly. In this case, we have been able to leverage resources collaboratively in a way that we couldn't have done separately. The potential for undergraduate and graduate level student research projects is astounding."For additional information visit: