The conversations that come up while traveling are incredible, before you know it you can be discussing life’s biggest secrets with someone you’ve met 15 minutes ago. I’ve come to discover that everything happens faster when you’re traveling; creating friends, learning lessons, losing money, falling in love, making memories, discovering peoples stories, time. Thats why when you find a connection that you know will last, whether it be with a person, place, or thing, it makes it that much more special. What has been special for me these last few weeks of traveling was to have two familiar faces join me here in Ecuador. Two of the loveliest ladies I know, some of my best friends from Colorado State University Chelsea Samani and Tara Stitzlien arrived in Quito to begin the joint chapter of our journey together. Chelsea recently graduated from CSU with a degree in psychology and a passion in neuroscience and will be traveling with me through South America until November. Tara graduated in December with a degree in Biology and has continued her love of traveling and exploration after college living in Driggs, Idaho and then a journey through Chile and Bolivia before coming to Ecuador. By the first day she was here we had moved her flight back a month later than what was planned. With two beautiful gals at my side and a world of possibilities we set out to the coast after spending the first two days in Quito staying with a good friend of mine and getting to enjoy each others company in Cumbaya.
We set out for Canoa. We knew from the moment we arrived that Canoa would be an adventure. An early bus ride lead us to two immediate friends and a week full of experiences. The first afternoon we spent swimming in the ocean and just as the waves were brewing from the oncoming storm I felt my excitement brewing in my stomach. Alligator bites with tranquilo vibes and 6 days later we quickly realized the small town coastal life has an adaptability that soon has you wondering whether its been two days or two hours. It’ll have you questioning your decision to leave before you’ve even decided when you are leaving. If you're lucky, you might accumulate what you've lost and break even. The days pass easy, each with a taste of excitement dosed in laughter. Legs were turned purple, travelers into gypsies, and lessons into games. The second night I painted a heart on my inner arm and as we were leaving I noticed it had faded to specs of red, perhaps we all did leave a little part of our hearts in Canoa. Or perhaps, we leave a little bit of ourselves everywhere we go and this was no exception. Except for the few who can call Canoa home this beautiful ridge lined paradise is a fleeting love affair in between many journeys. By Friday of that week we decided it was time to move on and we left for the town of Tabuga, just 45 minutes north. We spent three beautiful days on my favorite beach, which I had been shown during the semester by my professors. Tabuga is the town were the Ceiba Foundation has a Dry Forest Reserve called Lalo Loor. We meet some local fishermen who gave us a ride to the beach and we took some time to enjoy the scenery, the sunset, and the solitude. That night the local fishermen came back from their catch at about 10 o’clock and gave us 4 langostinas and 5 fish. We roasted them over our already burning fire and indulged on the fresh seafood. It was the first time I had gutted a fish! I find that with the more experiences I have through traveling the harder its getting to find anything “weird.” I fell asleep that night with a full belly, the moon above me, and the songs of tree frogs and toads singing in my ears.
The scenery of the dry forest is breathtaking, the forest extends all the way to the coast line and drastically drops into the ocean in places. On the two night walks I took I ran into four species of frog, two toads, two snakes, and looooots of lizards. I encountered a member of the Viperidae family, Bothrops asper, the turnip-tailed gecko in Canoa, Thecadactylus rapicauda, the common cane toad Rhinella marina, one more species of Bufonidae and two species of Pristimantis, which is a large genus of frogs that is still being discovered here in Ecuador. Species highlight:
Thecadactylus rapicauda and all geckos have amazing adaptations that set them apart from other members of the lizard order. Geckos do not have eyelids, so they have adapted to licking their eyeballs to keep them moist as well as clean them from particles. If you encounter a gecko watch it for a moment and you will notice this behavior. Another adaptation that geckos have is the use of van der Waal forces, which allows them to stick or cling to any surface and by as little as a toe. The setae (hair-like structure) on their footpads creates an intermolecular bond with the molecules of the surface and causes the molecules to cohere (AH Science Dictionary). This discovery has lead to the research into using this technology for humans.
Rhinella marina, is an extremely common amphibian to encounter in Central and South America. The common name, cane toad, comes from the history of introducing this species on cane sugar plantations to eradicate the herbivorous insects and other pest animals. The cane toad is known for its large size, opportunistic feeding, and wide distribution.
After highlighting a few of these species I’d like to take this time to describe the importance of the ecosystem they inhabit, the dry forest. El bosque seco is the newest addition to the worlds “hot-spots.” This is categorized as an ecosystem with high amounts of biodiversity which is threatened by humans. The threats facing the Manabi coast of Ecuador are daunting and rapidly increasing; vulnerability, water quality, deforestation, and development are all causing this incredible ecosystem to disappear. The issues specifically affecting amphibians and reptiles are habitat turned to pasture, river pollution, road kill, and a lack of local understanding of their ecological contributions. Often amphibians and reptiles are regarded as dangerous and harmful creatures.
My goal is to change this way of thinking and the start of this is by talking to people about amphibians and of course I am always eager to talk about herps! When I do I am rewarded with stories, confessions, and a chance to spread the knowledge. While talking to an Argentinian friend we began the conversation of amphibians. During the conversation he asked me whether toads were males and frogs were females. This struck me as the perfect example of why more knowledge needs to be spread to travelers and locals. I explained the difference between frogs and toads, the reliance they have or don’t have on water, and the different reliances on the ecosystem that each has. One really interesting thing he told me is that at his farm in Cordova, Argentina (where I hope to go volunteer at!) there has been a switch from seeing an abundance of frogs to only toads. This is extremely predictive to possible land uses, toads are less susceptible to environmental changes because their skin is not as permeable, but instead much drier and thicker.
These last two weeks have been the beginning of a big future. Us three gals have been brainstorming and collaborating to plan for a future that involves returning to Ecuador and incorporating all of our interests and specialties. Hopefully returning the following year with a research grant, the process continues connecting with contacts, writing the proposal, and filling out applications! I underestimated the scarcity of internet and time while traveling but am learning how to dedicate the appropriate effort to ensuring I can fulfill amphibian conservation while fully experiencing the life of a mochilera. The next part of our journey is headed to the Andes for hiking, crater lakes, breathtaking valleys, and working on the land. With good friends and good fortune I can't wait to see where the adventure takes us.
Life here in Ecuador has been amazing, I have been learning and discovering everything there is to know about the biology, ecology, culture, and people here. I can't believe how fast the semester went...let alone my undergraduate career! Time really does keep getting faster as you grow older. This semester has ignited my passion for learning and shown me what I want to dedicate my life to. I am so passionate about staying here in Ecuador and studying amphibian biology while incorporating the topics of conservation, sustainable use, and local education. Traveling really does bring the world together, I have made amazing friends and incredible memories over the past 5 months, and I am excited to see where the next 5 months take me. Now, the journey of becoming an explorer and feeling the freedom of a graduate begins...!
My first week as a conservation biologist:
After spending the previous day with my friend Nina in the visa office waiting 6 hours, only to have a 10 minute meeting and an exchanging of numbers (who knew all you needed was a whatsapp account to get a visa extended?) I was ready to leave the concrete jungle for some fresh air and green landscape.
First stop, Mashpi Reserve. This is a 1200 hectare privately owned protected area at the heart of the larger municipality of the Mashpi area. I left for Mashpi early Wednesday morning with members of the Tropical Herping team to photograph a red-tailed coral snake. While the photos were being taken I spent the day pondering life and practicing a little yoga in front of a waterfall. I was deep in thought planning and dreaming about the future, smiling about the past, but most importantly appreciating the moment. I began to understand while its important to strive for the future and remember the past, you can't get stuck living in them. The strongest memories come from losing yourself to the moment and being content with the here and now. Take the time to let your senses feel your surroundings. Get lost in thought. Sit and think, but think the thoughts that are worth your time. Don't loose minutes over possessions you don't have, people you can't change, and circumstances beyond your control. Focus on what is in front of you and put your effort into things you can make a difference in. Be content. But never lose the excitement for adventure. And then go look for frogs and snakes...
So after the day passed I planned to get a ride into the town of Mashpi to stay at a local chocolate farm. But it turned out I would be staying at the reserve a little longer...Carlos, the head biologist and friend of Tropical Herping informed me that the town was about an hour and a half away from the reserve, in the opposite direction than how my friends were returning to Quito, and the last shuttle had left about 45 minutes ago. Looks like my plan to meet my friends at the finca would be postponed until tomorrow. No problem, I would take the 9:00 bus out and I was lucky enough to be offered accommodation in the biological station in the reserve. It also happened that this was the night he would be giving a presentation on the projects he had conducted and currently worked on throughout his four years as the biologist there! What appeared to be a stranding was slowly turning into a blessing in disguise...
After learning about the diversity and potential within the reserve I woke up the next morning after a night of rain, lots of rain. 8 hours of downpour had apparently caused three landslides in between where I was and the town, blocking access out of the reserve and into Mashpi. Besides this delaying my arrival at the farm and causing my friends to think I had gone missing (I'm sorry!) I had the day to explore the beautiful area :) I helped out in the morning at the Centro de Vida, which is a butterfly reserve with a full breeding program and research center. I learned the process of starting and maintaing the populations and spent the morning transferring newly hatched caterpillars onto designated plants to grow and mature. Spending the day at Mashpi also provided time to discuss my ideas for the grant with Carlos, who would be an affiliate of the project, and brainstorm the direction of the proposal. Around 5 that afternoon I said a final goodbye to what would be a hopeful return and was at last on my way to Mashpi Chocolate Artesanal!
Winding through dense cloudforest is an incredible site. The rolling hills display every color of green and are a mosaic of farmland and natural forest. The three local ladies along in the ride advised me of my stop and I walked up the beautiful road towards Mashpi Shungo, and just in time to eat chocolate bananas and spend a last night with my friends before they headed out to Banos. My time at the chocolate farm was an inspiring and possibly life deciding event. I fell in love with the area and the lifestyle. Everything they eat is within 50 km of the farm and in the open kitchen and living room swings hammocks and book shelves that look out to the beautiful landscape underneath. I was able to spend the nights discussing conservation and sustainable use with Alejandro and playing and watching futbol with Augustina and Vanne, the ladies in charge of the chocolate making. These ladies along with 15 other teams from around the area travel 2+ hours every Saturday to play futbol matches. On Saturday we fit 15 people in the pick-up, got turned around 4 times due to closed roads, and got soaked with rain in the back of the truck during the downfall on the way home. It was a lovely afternoon and a beautiful experience. That night I was lucky enough to celebrate the birthday of a visiting friend and we had montons of carne and pork asada, vegetables, salad, and red wine all paired with interesting people and good conversation. I left early Sunday morning on the ranchero out of town, knowing that I will be back to further my relationship with the town and biology of the surrounding area.
Now for the herp report!! My amphibian findings: Alejandro and I set out for some Friday night herping around the farm and along the river of Mashpi, until about 2:00am listening and identifying what we could. We found an incredible amount of beautiful herp species, including a glassfrog, many species of Hylidae, Pristimantis (family Craugastoridae), Bufonidae, and Plethodontidae, which is the family of Anolis lizards. It was a successful herping trip and the area was breathtakingly gorgeous and natural! Filled with a restored tilapia pond which now served as great amphibian habitat, dense forest in between plots of land use, and overgrown river banks teeming with wildlife. After talking with Alejandro, who is one of the most innovative and passionate conservationists I have had the pleasure of meeting, I understand the opportunity to research and discover the amphibian diversity within Mashpi and share that knowledge with the locals. My future project could be a part of a large scale sustainable use plan implemented for the surrounding areas within the Pinchicha province. The idea is to make Mashpi and the neighboring towns a model forest for sustainable agriculture, conservation, and community tourism. I cannot wait to return and get started on these projects!