Comparative Temperate/Tropical Ecology & Biogeography

Dr. Jim Costa, WCU/HBS & Mr. Travis Knowles, Francis Marion University

Highlands Biological Station: 9 – 15 July

Wildsumaco Biological Station, Ecuador: 15 – 28 July

For centuries, naturalists have worked toward an understanding of the structure and function of ecological systems, and the related question of the geographical distribution of species. The historical and ecological processes that shape these form the foundation of modern biogeography and community and ecosystem ecology.  Explorer-naturalists of the 18th century, such as Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland, pioneered a comparative approach to mapping and understanding global patterns of species diversity and its distribution.  In so doing they played a key role in the development of modern ecology and biogeography.

In this unique field course, we aim to take a field-based comparative approach to exploring southern Appalachian and Amazonian Andean montane ecology and biogeography in the spirit of the explorer-naturalists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  We will consider the geological context of the Appalachians and Andes, comparative biogeography / ecology of these regions in terms of ecological and historical factors that shape their biota, big-picture patterns of latitudinal and elevational diversity gradients, and principles of forest community structure and function.  Throughout, we will examine comparative evolutionary patterns and processes shaping diversity, inter-species relationships, and adaptation.

Temperate and tropical communities and ecosystems have interesting commonalities in some of their attributes while also exhibiting striking differences in such characteristics as forest structure and the extent and distribution of biological diversity.  This unique field course aims to provide a comparative exploration of the ecology and biogeography of two remarkable temperate and tropical regions: the Blue Ridge Escarpment and Great Smoky Mountain region of the southern Appalachian mountains, and the Ecuadoran Andes from the inter-Andean valley of the capital, Quito, to the Amazonian slope will be our classrooms.  Our “base camps” for exploration will be Highlands Biological Station (HBS, Highlands, North Carolina, USA; 35.0539° N, 83.1894° W) and Wildsumaco Biological Station (WBS, Sumaco Biosphere Reserve, Ecuador; 0.6715° S, 77.5987° W). 

These field stations are located at comparable elevations (approx. 4,000 feet for HBS, 4,600 feet for WBS) in very different mountain ranges, approximately 35° apart in latitude, one in the temperate zone and the other on the equator.  HBS is located on the edge of the Blue Ridge Escarpment, atop a Neoproterozoic- and Paleozoic-aged granite-gneiss plateau in a region that boasts the highest mountains in eastern North America, the second-highest rainfall on the continent at 90+ inches on average, and biological richness unsurpassed in the earth’s temperate zones for many groups.  The region surrounding HBS is remarkably intact mixed-mesophytic, northern hardwood, and spruce-fir forest, including several tracts of Old Growth, with high levels of endemism (notably for plants and amphibians, especially salamanders which exhibit species richness that rivals that of the tropics). 

WBS is situated on the eastern (Amazonian) slope of the Andes of Ecuador, among the highest and youngest mountains on earth and receiving some 135 inches of rainfall annually.  The tropical regions of the world are renowned for their unsurpassed biological diversity, and the Amazonian slope of the Andes is among the very richest.  Volcanic in origin, the Ecuadoran Andes include over two dozen peaks exceeding 10,000 feet in elevation (the highest over 20,000 feet), many volcanically active.  To get to WBS we will travel from Quito, situated in the relatively dry inter-Andean valley at approximately 9,000 feet elevation, up and over the eastern cordillera at Papallacta Pass at 13,123 feet before traversing cloud forest and upper montane rain forest as we descend approximately 9,000 feet down the Amazonian slope.  Communities around WBS include primary lower montane rain forest with extensive trails, as well as secondary forest and pasture land.  Following our stay at WBS we will travel to Antisana National Park, home of Antisana Volcano, where we will have 1.5 days to explore the unique high-elevation páramo community around 13,000 feet elevation.