Ecuador: Part I

We just returned from the tropics and the beautiful country of Ecuador. As it's name suggests Ecuador straddles the equator and is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. For birds alone the tiny nation of Ecuador boasts over 1,600 species, compare that to just over 900 for all of North America north of Mexico. The Northern Andes form the spine of Ecuador running along the middle of the country. To the east is the Amazon basin and to the west the Pacific coast and in Northwestern Ecuador is the Choco, a very biodiverse region with many endemic species, extending from Panama, through Columbia and into Ecuador.

Our trip began in the cloud forests of the Andean slopes of Southeastern Ecuador at the Jocotoco Foundation's Tapichalaca Reserve located in the Podocarpus National Park. Montane cloud forests form in areas where warm air masses cool as they rise in the face of high mountain slopes. Moisture condenses in these rising air masses and blankets the forested slopes in clouds, mist and rain. Cloud forests are some of the wettest environments on Earth and provide the perfect environment for moisture loving plants, especially mosses, bromeliads and orchids (see photo above left). Many of these plants are epiphytes, growing on the trunks and branches of trees (see photo right). Despite being near the equator the elevation of these forests keeps the temperatures comparatively mild year round. Our time at Tapichalaca was during the tail-end of the rainy season and rain fell regularly during our stay making the steep mountain trails a muddy slog through the forest.

The cloud forests of Ecuador are home to many unique animals. The near constant wet conditions provide an ideal habitat for high humidity loving animals such as frogs and land snails. Many bird species are also found exclusively in tropical cloud forests. The recently described Jocotoco Antpitta (Grallaria ridgelyi, see photo left) is a ground bird found only in a small area around the Tapichalaca Reserve. Birds like the Jocotoco Antpitta make the region a Mecca for birdwatchers around the globe. Other cloud forest specialties include the Black-billed Mountain Toucan (Andigena nigrirostris), the Hooded Mountain Tanager (Buthraupis montana) and Collared Inca (Coeligena torquata).

Steep mountain forests in the tropics remain some of of the most well preserved natural ecosystems in the world, however, threats to these seemingly inaccessible habitats remain. Greater awareness through research, conservation and carefully controlled ecotourism can help preserve these unique montane forests. Cincinnati Museum Center plans to organize future trips to Ecuador for area birders and other nature enthusiasts. This trip represents the initial exploratory forays into a new tropical montane biodiversity program. Stay tuned for upcoming reports from our expedition to Ecuador and news on future ecotourism opportunities to visit Ecuador with Cincinnati Museum Center scientists.