During spring semester 2012, I studied abroad through a program with the Ceiba Foundation for Tropical Conservation in Ecuador. Ecuador is considered to have the most biodiversity in the world, and I was fortunate to see practically every corner of the country. From snorkeling around the Galapagos Islands to observing unique marine species to hiking through the Amazon Rainforest and encountering new plant species with every step, Ecuador provided amazing hands-on learning opportunities.
I spent the first quarter of my time at Universidad San Francisco de Quito, an affluent college located just outside Quito, the capital city. I took Spanish and Conservation Biology classes and lived with a host family. Getting to know my family taught me more about the Spanish language and Ecuadorian culture than a college class ever could. Before long, I was making weekly trips to places such as the paramo ecosystem in the Andes Mountains and the Amazon Rainforest. Although Ecuador is smaller than New England, it has more than twice as many bird species than the entire United States. At the Tiputini Biodiversity Research in the Amazon Rainforest there was an ornithologist who was having a difficult time finding specimens to analyze. When I asked him to help me identify a picture of a bird I had taken during a morning stroll through the forest, he replied that he had been “trying to find that (expletive) bird for over two weeks!”
After two months of learning Spanish and exploring terrestrial Ecuador, we spent three weeks in the Galapagos Islands. Words cannot describe the natural beauty of these islands. Due to a lack of predators, the fauna there are naturally curious and do not run away in your presence. It is not good to touch every animal you see, but sometimes it is unavoidable, especially when you are being chased! While observing a sea lion harem lounging on a beach, one of the females got a little too curious and started scooting its way toward me. At first I backtracked but then I remained in place because her approach seemed more playful than malicious. All of a sudden the sea lion locked its teeth around my leg! When I saw her huge teeth, I thought I was going to get a free foot amputation! It was like playing tug-of-war with a dog that weighs 600 pounds. Fortunately, she released after a few seconds and went back to her pup. After exploring the islands we snorkeled the waters around them. I saw hundreds of fish species, sea turtles, rays, and even sharks. We also visited the Charles Darwin Research Station and met Lonesome George, the last of one of nine species of giant tortoises throughout the Galapagos. Unfortunately, George died after we visited him.
During the last portion of the semester I interned with an organization called Third Millenium Alliance at the Jama-Coaque reserve in a small coastal town called Camarones (which means shrimp in Spanish.) There, I monitored big cat populations (Ocelots, Pumas, and Jaguarundi) using motion sensor camera traps. This was my favorite part of the semester because I was able to apply the knowledge I had learned throughout the semester to educate Ecuadorian children. I showed them the pictures I had collected and told the kids how trees and animals like Guatusa (large squirrel-like rodents) and even little bugs are vital for a forest’s survival. Currently the forest around Camarones is being heavily hunted and deforested, and if my pictures prevent even the slightest destruction, I will feel successful.
Ecuador opened my eyes to new lands, languages, and cultures and the experience I had there has influenced the way I think and act greatly. My current goal is to form a career protecting endangered biodiversity hot-spots that are swiftly shrinking as the human population rises. There is no doubt in my mind that I will continue to travel around the globe to create new memories like the unforgettable ones I made in Ecuador.
Laura Brehm is a junior with a Wetland and Aquatic Ecology concentration who has had two adventures this year in two entirely different regions of the globe. Last summer, Laura lived in Siem Reap, Cambodia where she volunteered for Trailblazers, an NGO (non- governmental organization). Most farmers in Cambodia are subsistence farmers and may live on less than two dollars a day; failed crops for these farmers are a failed livelihood.Trailblazer’s goal was to find the most efficient and effective way to grow crops (such as soybeans, cabbages and mushrooms) and then teach the farmers what was learned. Their techniques included using drip irrigation systems to save water, composting failed mushrooms and crops and rotating different nitrogen fixing crops to build up the soil. Laura recalls her co-worker Kimsang who developed an organic spray for the soybeans made primarily of red chili peppers. “It smelled horrible, but it seemed to work because none of the soybeans had a single mark from a bug!”
In addition to her volunteer work, Laura enjoyed visiting many of the ancient temples found in Siem Reap; observing the local jungle ecosystem where she saw scorpions, giant spiders, gibbons (primates) and cicadas “that are so loud they hurt your ears”; and eating vast amounts of fresh mangoes, pineapples, papayas, bananas, rambutan and lotus flower fruit.
During Spring Break 2012, Laura traveled to Tanzania in East Africa with a group of twenty four people from UMaine, as part of INT 475: Field Studies in Ecology. Stops on their tour included Arusha National Park, Tarangire National Park, Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Crater. The group visited both savannah and forest ecosystems, where Laura observed a diversity of species in their native habitats. Laura describes her journey to Tanzania as “a dream that I didn’t want to end. Seeing such a diverse amount of animals surviving in their natural habitats is something that every ecologist should experience.”
A memorable stop on the trip was The Ngorongoro Crater, which was formed by a volcanic eruption two to three million years ago. “Around the rim of the volcano is a lush montane forest with huge trees and giant vines that reminded me of the Cambodian jungle,” recalls Laura. “Inside of the crater, walls surround you on every side; I felt like I was in a giant fishbowl with animals everywhere. We saw wildebeests, zebras, and beautiful birds such as the kori bustard and grey crested cranes. We witnessed a predation and we even saw the endangered black rhino, completing our list of ‘the big five’ (the five largest mammals in Africa: buffalo, leopards, lions, rhinoceroses and elephants).”
When Laura is not studying or exploring the globe, she serves as co-president of UMaine’s Green Team and is a member of SEED (Sustainable Energy and Ecological Design) and SAgE (Sustainable Agriculture Enthusiasts).
During the summer of 2011, Maggie participated in an REU internship at Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in Thornton, NH. She was placed on a project team with a goal to understand the hillslope hydrology of a specific watershed at Hubbard Brook. A deeper understanding of the hydrologic mechanisms in this watershed can provide a general understanding of water flow regimes in forested ecosystems across New England. This internship gave her the opportunity to work closely with a geologist, Scott Bailey, and a hydrologist, Kevin McGuire as well as a PhD student from Virginia Tech. While this project was already underway when she began, she was given the opportunity to design a project specific to her interests that contributed to the overall project goal. She chose to examine the C horizon, the parent material of our soils, to better understand its contribution to water movement and storage in this watershed. Through this year, she has been continuing her research in the lab here at the University of Maine with Ivan Fernandez for her senior Honors Thesis. Not only did this experience provide Maggie with educational and stimulating field and laboratory work, but it allowed her to connect with the greater scientific community in her field of interest. “Overall, I cannot speak highly enough about the amazing experience I had … at Hubbard Brook and the opportunities it has provided me for the future”.
Maggie graduated in May 2012, and is pursuing an M.S. in Hydrologic Sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Nate grew up on a dairy farm in Vermont and always wanted to go to a university in New England that had a worldwide perspective, but also had a strong sense of community and a small college feel. The University of Maine in Orono is exactly that. He chose to major in Ecology and Environmental Science because he wanted to learn about how people interact with the natural world and “what we can do to create a prosperous future for ourselves while preserving the environment for future generations.” This interdisciplinary program has allowed him to make real-world connections between a broad range of subjects through coursework and hands-on experience. Assessing changes in vegetation while climbing Mount Katahdin, analyzing soils in southern Maine with farmers and professional soil scientists, looking at aquatic organisms in a local lake, and working in a lab conducting experiments on soils throughout Maine, are just a few of the many ways the University of Maine exposed him to the opportunities that the EES major has to offer. “As (an) Ecology and Environmental Science major with a Soil and Water Science concentration, I can confidently say that the University of Maine has prepared me for a successful and meaningful future”.
Nate graduated in May 2012, and will begin work this summer in St. Albans, Vermont as an Agricultural Resource Specialist/Land Treatment Planner for the Vermont Association of Conservation Districts where he will help farmers identify and implement Best Management Practices in a cost effective manner.