I just got home from a trip to Ecuador a couple of weeks ago. The amount of biodiversity packed into one small country was mind blowing. Roughly the size of Colorado, Ecuador covers an amazing diversity of habitat types ranging from tropical rain forests to high mountains and is home to almost 1515 species of birds, compared to 888 found in the US (this number is quite generous as it includes odd migrants that are lost or pushed off course by storms, really there are only about 50o species that are regularly found in the US). During my two weeks there I was lucky enough to see most of these different ecosystems and identified almost 100 species of birds.

We started in the Amazon rainforest along the Napo River, a major tributary of the Amazon River. The vegetation here was extremely thick along the river where plants were continually fighting for sunlight. Once you got away from the river into the primary forest though the understory opened up and was easy to move through. This is a result of the canopy trees absorbing the majority of the light energy and severely limiting the potential for growth on the forest floor. Above the canopy life thrives with hundreds of epiphytes and the giant ceiba trees that tower above the rest of the canopy.

Giant Ceiba tree

Giant Ceiba tree (note the person standing on a branch)

From the rainforest we traveled up into the paramo, a high elevation ecosystem found in the Andes Mountains. At 14,000 feet above sea level we found ourselves standing in hay meadows. In the US areas at this elevation would be nothing but rock and snow, yet thanks to being on the equator these areas are still able to produce thick stands of vegetation.

Landscape in the Andes

Landscape in the Andes

Next was the cloud forest on the western slopes of the Andes. I wish we could have afforded more than just one night here. As warm, moist air moves from the Pacific ocean up the slopes of the Andes it begins to drop its moisture. This moisture forms clouds that cover the forests with dew. As a result of all the moisture on the trunks of these trees they are covered in epiphytes (plants that grow on other plants, this is not the same as a parasitic plant as these epiphytes get all of their nutrients from water flowing down the trunks rather than stealing it from the host tree). The trees around us were covered in epiphytes such as orchids and bromeliads.

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Finally we found ourselves in the Galapagos Islands. Each island in this archipelago has its own unique features. Not only does the whole chain have endemic species (species found only in the Galapagos), but even some of the islands have endemics that are not found on any other island in the chain. For instance, the San Cristobal Mockingbird is only found around San Cristobal island. This bird actually descended from the Galapagos Mockingbird, which is common throughout the archipelago but not found anywhere else in the world.

Isabela Island, Galapagos

Isabela Island, Galapagos

From seeing the amazing diversity of such a small country to walking in the footsteps of Darwin himself this was the experience of a lifetime. Especially for a natural resource ecology student like myself.

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