Ecuador & the Galapagos - School Expeditions - Operation Wallacea

Ecuador & the Galapagos – School Expeditions

Schools Booklet 2017

Research objectives

One of the greatest threats to the most biodiverse areas of Amazonian forest is from oil extraction. In 2010 Ecuador was promised an agreement with the UN to protect its forests from oil extraction. A number of countries promised a total of US$3.6billion but the total received by Ecuador was claimed to be less than 4% of this figure. Originally thought to be ground breaking, this pledge had the potential to undo the power of the oil companies and protect key conservation areas, but in the end failed, leaving the forests at the mercy of extractive industry. Traditionally deforestation occurs after oil extraction and often with little benefit to the native people. However in an area of the Ecuadorian Amazon the Sani people have rejected the oil money and instead established a prestigious Eco Lodge. This business provides sustainable jobs and income whilst leaving their forests intact. Opwall is helping at this site by providing baseline data on the key taxa and monitoring the success of this venture in providing long term protection of the biodiversity.

In stark contrast to the plight facing the Ecuadorian Amazon, the Galapagos Islands has long funded its wildlife protection through tourism. The second week is designed to give the students an in depth understanding of the ecology, main habitats and key species and why the speciation that is apparent between the islands was such an important stepping stone in the development of Darwin’s ideas. 

Structure of the expedition

This expedition combines working on a biodiversity research project in the Amazon with a week visiting the Galapagos Islands completing a course on Galapagos Island ecology.

Week 1: Amazonian Forest Week

During this week the groups will be split into smaller teams and will rotate between the following activities:

  • Bird surveys: The lowland Amazon is hyper-diverse for birds (500+ species) and the list of birds seen in the Sani reserve is extensive.  However, there is no centrally maintained list or readily accessible information available to guests.   Survey work will be done from point counts in the forested areas and from transect surveys along the water course areas.  Birds will be identified from both sightings and calls.  A call library will be available on site of all the likely species to be encountered.  In addition mist netting will be used to sample some of the understorey species.  
  • Large mammals and primates: This team will be retrieving the images from a network of cameras set up around the camping region of the Sani reserve.  This involves trekking considerable distances so during these treks this team will also be completing standard searches for terrestrial, arboreal mammals and game birds to complement the camera trap footage. Camera trap footage from the 2017 expedition has proven the presence of several large cat species, giant river otters, short-eared dogs, giant armadillos and several game bird species amongst others.
  • Habitat and Vegetation Community surveys: These surveys will be linked to the large mammal and primate surveys and will involve collecting plant material for identification of key species.  In addition quadrat surveys will be completed where necessary to characterize the physical structure of the forest.  The final output will be a GIS map of the reserve with an illustrated description of each of the main vegetation communities and their constituent species.
  • Herpetofauna survey team: The techniques for these surveys involve active searching at a fixed width of 5m either side of the transect line in the late morning when reptiles and amphibians are most active.  In addition pitlines and cover boards will be used to provide extra sampling effort.  The output from this survey will be a digital guide to reptiles and amphibians found in the reserve with an assessment of the likelihood of encountering each species.
  • Fish survey team: This team will be completing surveys of the fish communities using both electrofishing from a boat and also the use of throw nets in shallower water. All fish captured will be measured (fork length), identified to species level and photographed before release back into the river.  The output from this survey will be a digital guide to the fish species  in the reserve with an assessment of their relative abundance.

In addition to these surveys the groups will also be completing an Amazonian wildlife and conservation course which comprises lectures and related activities/discussions on: Tropical rainforests biogeogrqaphy and ecology, plant life in the Neotropics, fish of the Amazon, evolution, classification and birds of the Amazon, amphibians and reptiles of the Amazon, fores mammals and conservation challenegs in the Amazon.

Week 2: Galapagos week

During this week groups will complete a Galapagos Island ecology course which will cover the following topics: Introduction to the Galapagos Islands, vegetation zones and how species arrived, introduction to the Galapagos marine environment, fish and invertebrates of the Galapagos, endemic species of the islands, marine megafauna of the Galapagos, adaptive radiation and conservation of the Galapagos. Alongside the lectures series students will also complete associated land and marine based practicals.

  • Diving: One day of the course is dedicated to gaining a diving experience. For those with no previous diving experience they will be completing a Discover Scuba dive.   Since not all students will be able to dive at the same time, those not completing skills or doing their Discover Scuba dive will be snorkeling with a Dive Instructor in the water with them who will be teaching the identification of some of the fish species encountered. For the qualified divers their first dive will be a check dive with a Dive Instructor whilst the second dive will be concentrating on learning some of the fish species encountered.  For those who have completed the referral elements of the PADI Open Water dive training course (ie the theory and confined water skills), there will be two dives with a maximum of 8 students and 2 Dive Instructors in the water with them at any time.  Both of these dives will concentrate on learning the skills needed to complete the full Open Water course.  The dive location used for these dives and snorkel practicals has huge shoals of fish, sealions, turtles, sharks and marine iguanas so should be interesting.
  • Guided Visits to the Transitional and Humid Zones: These two half day practicals will be based in Highland View and consist of guided walks with an experienced naturalist explaining about the vegetation changes across the reserve and the birds and other animals encountered.
  • Guided Visit to the Coastal Arid and Mangrove Zones: This full day practical with a professional local naturalist guide is in the Tortuga Bay National Park.  The first part of the visit is through the arid coastal zone and here the guide will be showing the students the typical Opuntia cacti, spiny bushes and small trees including Manzanillo tree (poison apple tree).  Then there is a walk along a 1km long beach and a chance to snorkel next to the mangroves. This is an excellent site for marine iguanas and the guide will explain about their ecology and the students will complete some scan and focal sample behavioural observations on the marine iguanas.  The final session explains about the mangroves and some of associated species such as the bright red Sally Lightfoot crabs and Lava Herons.
  • Geology Guided Visit: This is a days trekking from the reserve to the nearby El Chato reserve with a specialist guide who will explain about the geology of the islands and the formation of the lava tubes that the students will be able to see.
  • Galapagos fish identification: In addition to the session learning fish species as part of the diving day and the snorkeling at Tortuga Bay, there will be a separate one day trip to the Itabaca Channel at the north of the island.   The students will be able to snorkel where they have a good chance of encountering rays and white tipped sharks as well as many other fish species.




Sani Research Camp

In the Amazonian forest week students will be staying in tents in the Sani research camp which is accessed by an hour long canoe ride from Sani Lodge, which in turn is reached by a 3 hour boat ride along the Napo river. The camp has a shared lecture and dining room where meals are served. There are shared field toilets and showers at this site.

Santa Cruz

The second week on the Galapagos Islands will be spent in Highland View, which is located in the highlands of Santa Cruz island. Students will be in hammocks. There are shared bathroom facilities and meals, prepared by local staff will be taken in a covered outdoor dining area .