UNCW partners with FMU to build biological research station in Ecuador

February 2011

Construction of a biological research station in Wildsumaco Wildlife Sanctuary on the east slope of the Andes mountains will allow faculty and students from University of North Carolina Wilmington and Francis Marion University to study one of the world's most biologically diverse regions.

Adjacent to the 12,560-foot Sumaco Volcano, the last major mountain before reaching the Amazon basin, the sanctuary, at nearly 5,000 feet in altitude, is home to approximately 500 species of birds and a number of rare snakes, reptiles, monkeys and jungle cats, including the puma, margay and ocelot.

Brian Arbogast visits WildSumacoThe partnership was "more or less serendipitous," said Brian Arbogast (left, at WildSumaco), UNCW terrestrial conservation biologist and future assistant director of the station. Arbogast met Travis Knowles, FMU assistant provost, associate professor of biology and future director of the station, when they were in graduate school at Wake Forest University. The researchers maintained a long-time friendship and participated together in several research-based birding trips.

When Knowles met Jim and Bonnie Olson and Jonas Nilsson, founders of the Wildsumaco Sanctuary, he invited Arbogast to visit the site with him. The sanctuary, situated between two Ecuadorean villages, was established to support birding ecotourism and forest conservation. It is also an ideal site for scientific exploration, which has happened much less at mid-elevation, compared to lower elevation rainforest sites.

Although the Olsons and Nilsson operate a lodge on the property, there was a clear need for a separate scientific research station. Built with concrete blocks, the approximately 2,000-square-foot station will consist of two buildings nestled in the heart of the sanctuary: 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. Accommodations will be rustic and cost-effective, yet provide students and scientists with features important for conducting research, such as electricity, satellite internet and areas for storing equipment.

"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.

The partnership supports one of UNC Wilmington's strategic goals: to create an educational environment that prepares students to become global citizens. While working alongside professional scientists during summer field excursions, students will engage with local citizens to experience the rich Ecuadorean culture. Benefits are also multi-disciplinary, extending beyond science. Denise DiPuccio, associate provost of international programs at UNCW, anticipates that students from the fields of social work, education, nursing, Spanish, art, parks and recreation and more will be able to utilize the facility.

Margay photo taken with Reconyx cameraSome faculty and students have already begun research projects in the area. UNCW graduate student Anne-Marie Hodge, who holds a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, focuses on the carnivore population. Most specifically, she studies the margay, a small, spotted tropical cat (pictured right).

"I use non-invasive sampling techniques to study habitat selection and activity patterns of margays and other carnivores, and to analyze how these species affect one another's behavior," Hodge said. "Very little is known about the margay, and I will try to determine its habitat preferences to use for future efforts to protect margays, which are a declining species."

Construction is underway and expected to be complete within the year, depending on contractor schedules and weather. The facility will be owned and operated by FMU, the lead academic institution, but UNCW will receive priority scheduling and rates for the use of the facility and a spot on the advisory committee for policy development.

For Further Information:

Wildsumaco Biological Station FB page:

Wildsumaco and Rio Pucuno Pages:

-- Lindsay Key '11 MFA, media research assistant, 910-962-7252