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Andes to Amazon Adventure
UM offers remote South American field course
Descend 8,000 feet from the top of the Andes to the Amazon Basin in one nine-hour hike. Travel up one of the most remote rivers on Earth. Encounter some of the planet’s rarest wildlife. Conduct research alongside some of the world’s best tropical ecologists.
Sound like adventure tourism? Think again. These amazing opportunities became a reality, not for tourists, but for a lucky group of UM and Peruvian students taking part in a new Peruvian Tropical Biology course offered by UM’s Division of Biological Sciences.
The course was the brainchild of Alex Trillo, a UM doctoral student. A native Peruvian, she received her undergraduate degree in biology at the University of California, San Diego.
“While I was there, I helped with several field courses that took UC students to Costa Rica,” Trillo says. “We learned the biology, but I felt the students were missing a lot.”
What they were missing, Trillo says, was interaction with their peers in the host country and immersion in the country’s culture and language. She would soon be in a position to change that.
After moving to Missoula, Trillo heard about a Harvard graduate-level class where students conducted research with local biologists in Belize. She and fellow graduate student Andrew Whiteley thought they could organize a similar course at UM and approached biology Professor Erick Greene with their idea. He enthusiastically agreed to help organize and teach the course, as well as find funding.
The trio quickly set goals for themselves. They would teach a semester-long seminar course on tropical biology and conservation for 10 to 20 UM students. They would establish ties with corresponding universities in Peru, where qualified students would be selected to participate. Most important, they would organize a four- to six-week intensive field course where UM and Peruvian students would conduct research together in some of the most remote and biologically diverse hot spots in Peru.
That was the start of fall semester 2004. By the following January, Trillo, Whiteley and Greene were in Peru making preparations. They discussed the course with the chancellor and faculty members of the Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina in Lima, who agreed to participate, and they visited research stations and field sites, arranging buses, boats, planes and the necessary government permits.
By spring semester 2005, the course was under way. UM students enrolled in the seminar class to prepare for the field trip. An equal number of students in Peru were selected, and in August both groups met in Lima for what was to be the trip of a lifetime.
From Lima, the group flew to southeastern Peru and made its way to the cloud forest, high in the Andes, to a remote research station called Wayqecha. The cloud forest is one of the most poorly understood ecosystems in the world, and the group stayed several weeks to study it. From Wayqecha, the students made their way to the crest of the mountains and began an epic hike from high-elevation grassland habitat down to lowland rainforest — a drop of 8,000 feet. In the process, they traversed four life zones (distinct sets of habitats characterized by specific temperatures, rainfall, altitude and species) on trails where the vegetation literally grew over their heads. Once in the lowlands, the group took boats up the Madre de Dios River to the Los Amigos Biological Station, the last field site on the trip.
The students conducted rigorous research in Peru, and there could hardly be a better place for it. Peru is one of the most biologically diverse places on Earth. While Montana’s Clark Fork River supports about 25 species of fish, the Madre de Dios River may have as many as 250. Fully one-quarter of bird species on Earth live in the relatively small part of Peru the group visited.
The students were introduced to this mind-boggling diversity with daily field trips and taxonomy workshops led by instructors and research station staff. They learned about reptiles, amphibians, fish, mammals, insects and birds in each area they visited and about the research tools used to study them. Students also attended short lectures and classes in the evenings, as well as informal conservation talks on threatened Peruvian national parks. They conducted their own research, both individually and in groups, and presented their results throughout
Greene says interaction and cooperation between the U.S. and Peruvian students was key to the
“We didn’t want two cliques of students, one U.S. and one Peruvian, working in isolation,” he says. “We wanted them to interact and learn from each other.”
One medium for this interaction was language. The course organizers saw to it that a few of the U.S. students spoke Spanish and a few of the Peruvian students spoke English. Since the instruction was in both Spanish and English, the students were constantly translating for one another. The students’ complementary perspectives on science also brought them together.
“Biology students in the U.S. are trained in experimental design and hypothesis testing, as well as the theoretical bases of ecology, genetics and statistics,” Trillo explains. “In contrast, Peruvian biologists are more grounded in taxonomy, systematics and natural history. When you combine these two areas of expertise, there is an explosion of knowledge.”
“The level of student interaction and learning that occurred went beyond my wildest dreams,” Greene says. “For instance, the U.S. students gained a broader perspective on Peruvian conservation and learned that it was necessary in Peru to balance economics, native issues and a burgeoning population.”
By their own accounts, the U.S. students felt the course was life-changing, and many expressed the desire to
return to the tropics and work to protect the region.
For the Peruvian students, the course provided more research and career opportunities than they ever thought possible.
“Many have gone on to do things they absolutely wouldn’t have done before taking this course,” Greene says. One student, for example, won a prestigious grant from the Missouri Botanical Garden to continue research she started during the trip. Another became a course instructor and the head of research management for the Peruvian branch of the World Wildlife Fund.
Thanks to the generosity of alumni and the enthusiastic support of the UM administration, Peruvian Tropical Biology has now been offered twice with great success.
“We hope to develop long-term commitments and funding for the course, which is the only one of its kind that we know of,” Greene says. “It’s expensive and time-consuming to organize, but its impact on students is incredible.”
As Trillo puts it, “Both U.S. and Peruvian students have benefited tremendously from this course. If conservation is to be truly global, we will need scientists who have had exactly these kinds of cooperative experiences.”
— By Anne Greene
UM and Peruvian college students explore high-elevation grasslands in the Andes. (All photos are by Erick Greene except the jaguar by Garrett MacDonald.)
|Students use dugout canoes in a swamp near the Madre de Dios River.
|Students got up close and personal with many unusual Peruvian creatures: (Top) A rarely seen jaguar lounging on a riverbank. (Middle) A giant tree frog. (Bottom) A brightly colored motmot.