The Johns Hopkins Gazette: March 12, 2001
March 12, 2001
VOL. 30, NO. 25


Students Explore South America's Biological Treasures

By Michael Purdy
Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Students and faculty from Johns Hopkins this past January initiated what they hope will become a tradition with the first offering of an intersession course called Tropical Biology and Ecology in Ecuador and the Galapagos.

The course took faculty and students on an adventurous 13-day odyssey of learning through the volcanic Galapagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador; Quito, the capital city of Ecuador; and the remote tropical rain forest in eastern Ecuador.

Tortoises at the Darwin Research Center in Santa Cruz, Galapagos Islands.

While there, the group also initiated the tentative beginnings of a relationship between Hopkins and ESPE, a university in Ecuador that played a key role in facilitating the trip.

Greg Ball, a professor of psychology in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences and a specialist in the behavior of birds, and Randy Brown, an associate professor of comparative medicine in the School of Medicine and a veterinarian, were the instructors for the trip, initially intended to give students field-work experience in biology, zoology and ecology. As plans for the course were finalized, though, it became clear that the learning opportunities extended beyond those fields and into history, culture and sociology. In anticipation of this, they allowed students from a variety of majors to enroll in the course.

Lev Horodyskyj, notebook in hand, crosses a two-treetrunk bridge.

"For instance, in the rain forest we went and visited a shaman and learned about traditional herbs and medicines they use and the shaman culture," Ball said. "We also spent quite a bit of time in Quito and the surrounding area, going to a very famous Indian market north of Quito at Otavalo. That market has been in operation since well before the Spanish came 400 years ago."

The group came home with memories of experiences that ranged from the lurid to the profound, and of encounters with both the stereotypical and the unexpected.

They fished for piranha in the rain forest. They saw Lonesome George, a giant tortoise on the Galapagos Islands, who is the last surviving member of his species. They stood with one foot on either side of the planet Earth's equator. They saw (and some of them touched) a shrunken head. En route to a visit to an Indian market, they were held up by the passage of a curious protest that consisted of a parade of children in costumes.

"The different outfits were sort of pleas to the government for improved services," Ball said. "Some of [the children] were dressed like doctors asking for more medical care; some of them were dressed as soccer players, asking for increased soccer fields. That really struck the students."

Amanda Buchanan with the shaman who was the subject of her final paper.

Participants were required to keep a daily journal on their experiences and to compose a final paper on some facet of the trip that interested them. As they traveled, Brown and Ball gave frequent lectures on biology, ecology and Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution was sharply influenced by his experiences in South America and the Galapagos.

"I gave a lecture on Darwin from the back of the boat as we traveled around the Galapagos Islands," Brown reminisced. "Cruising across the beautiful, sparkling Pacific Ocean, it hit me that Darwin was almost the same age as the students when he saw the Galapagos. He really was not much older. And the view of the islands is not very different from what he saw 160 years ago.

"And then I thought, this is what learning is all about: going where the action is, going back to the original source," Brown said.

Among the most remarkable aspects of the Galapagos Islands is the fact that its animals, having evolved for thousands of years with no contact with humanity or other predators, have never learned to fear strange creatures.

"We were coming ashore one day to one of the islands, and we couldn't get off the boat because there were a bunch of sea lions and marine iguanas lying next to each other on the stairs," said Lev Horodyskyj, a sophomore majoring in Earth and planetary sciences.

"They're a little like college students--they're hard to get up early in the morning," joked Amanda Buchanan, a sophomore in biology.

Conservation policies strictly limit visitors to the Galapagos Islands to established trails, but thanks to the arid climate on the islands and the tameness of the animals, students and faculty were able to observe and photograph many of the animals from close range. They took pictures of blue-footed boobies, frigate birds and marine iguanas, and photographed and swam with sea lions.

The rain forest was a different but no less intriguing experience.

"What enabled Darwin to do what he did in the Galapagos was the much smaller number of species, and the fact they were much easier to see and in much more simplistic ecosystems. It was like a laboratory where you could eliminate a lot of the noise," Brown said. "The jungle, though, is one giant symphony of noise. The beauty and everything that's there create a noise-to-signal ratio that's just overwhelming."

The group traveled for most of a day to reach their jungle lodgings--an hour by plane over the Andes Mountains, three hours by bus through dusty, bumpy roads carved out of the jungle beside an oil pipeline and another three and a half hours upriver in a motorized canoe.

Although the noise of life was all about, the actual glimpses of wildlife were rarer in the jungle, and typically at a much greater distance.

"We were all sitting in the Amazon making a list of all the animals we'd seen in the jungle that day when one of the students, Greg Fuller, came running as fast as he could from the shower," Buchanan remembered. "He hadn't washed the soap out of his hair, he had only a towel on, and we were wondering if something was wrong. So we were yelling to him, but he didn't even look back."

By the time Buchanan and others caught up to him, he was dashing back for the shower, camera in hand. He'd noticed a tree frog on the shower curtain, and was determined to get its picture.

Students and faculty praised the accommodations, activities and hospitality provided by their Ecuadoran hosts throughout the trip. In the Galapagos, they stayed on a cruise ship built in the Balkans in the 1950s. In Quito, they were entertained at a dinner by local musicians, toured historic churches and visited the president's mansion. In the jungle, they were taken on adventurous activities like piranha fishing and caiman hunting, and were treated to great meals cooked from supplies brought to the lodge by boat.

Buchanan and Horodyskyj both fondly remembered the delicious food they were served while at the jungle lodge, but a photo of guinea pigs kept at the lodge did lead Buchanan to voice a suspicion about one meal.

"You remember that 'pork' dinner we had?" she asked Horodyskyj, smiling wryly. "I'm pretty sure the 'pork' was guinea pig."

"We had someone in Ecuador who really made things happen for us, and her name was Tammy Fesche," said Brown. Fesche's daughter, Camille, is a student at Hopkins. Tammy Fesche approached Gary Ostrander, associate dean for research in the School of Arts and Sciences, about the possibility of bringing a group of Hopkins students to the Galapagos over intersession.

Ostrander, whose research interests include marine ecology, had conducted a similar intersession course at another university, and with the help of his assistant, Ami Cox, he eagerly set to work putting together the course. Brown suggested the possibility of taking students to the rain forest, and with the help of Fesche and ESPE, an Ecuadoran university whose faculty Fesche had worked with before, they were able to schedule visits to both regions in one two-week trip.

While in Quito, the group met with faculty members and students from ESPE, whose full name is the Escuela Politecnica del Ejercito. "They were very interested in the possibilities of further contact with Hopkins and suggested some possibilities for future exchange programs," Ball said.

"ESPE operates in the same spirit as Hopkins because they really want to try to acquire knowledge and use that for their country's betterment. We took some gifts for them, and one was the new book Johns Hopkins: Knowledge for the World, and that resonated very nicely," he noted.

Buchanan and Horodyskyj said that they're still in touch via e-mail with some of the students they met at ESPE. Both have turned in their final reports, Buchanan on the shaman and Horodyskyj on Galapagos penguins.

"It's been funny to watch the students come in to hand in their papers," Ball noted with a laugh. "They come in all bundled up. None of them seems to remember that not too long ago they were all complaining about how hot it was."