Making Discoveries

June 9th, 2017   |   SIT Study Abroad

SIT students spot new species in Ecuador’s cloud forest

Read a St. Michael’s College story about Mindee Goodrum

Photo - SIT students spot new species in Ecuador’s cloud forest

A lot of people study abroad. Very few turn up a new species while they’re at it. Study with SIT in Ecuador, however, and the odds go up: Three students in the past year have helped scientists ID potential new species in Ecuador. Last year, Justine Albers found a possible new species of marsupial mammal. This year, Mindee Goodrum turned up a new frog species, and Clayton Ziemke spotted a potential new kind of ant.

In Mindee’s case, her frog has been confirmed as a new species by the scientist who first spotted it a few years ago, Santiago Ron of PUCE University and Natural History Museum of Quito. Though at first he doubted whether the frog was a new species, Ron says Mindee’s pictures proved it to him and to colleagues from the museum and the University of Texas. Publication of their findings will come shortly, and the frog will be named for a coffee company which contributes to cloud forest conservation.

The frog discovery was confirmed so quickly primarily because its genus only contains a few species for comparison, explains Xavier Silva, academic director for SIT’s Ecuador: Comparative Ecology and Conservation program,.

Not so with the possum, Silva explains. “ID-ing a new species of mammal takes a lot longer. Mammals take longer to collect – they’re more elusive, and you need more individuals to confirm it.” The ant may take longer yet because there are around 150 species in its genus.

Mindee, a student at St. Michael’s College in Vermont, says her field work with SIT was “definitely an adventure.” Because she was studying frogs, she had to conduct her work at night. “We’d leave around 3 or 5 o’clock. There were five different study locations, and they’d usually take an hour to hike to.”

In one case, the trip involved crossing a river by gondola. Once there, she and mentor Juan Pablo Reyes Puig, headlamps aglow, walked a 500-meter path (a “transect”) looking for frogs. “I was a little nervous the first few nights,” Mindee says. “I saw a few lemur-looking mammals, and there were some rustlings we couldn’t pinpoint.”

Before long, though, she grew accustomed to the sounds and sights of the cloud forest night. “Our basic goal was to get a survey of the population of frogs at the reserve. There were sites at different elevations and different micro-habitats, and we compared the differences in population between the sites.”

Mindee says she “had no idea” when she found the new species. “We found the first individual the second week. I was still learning the species, and my advisor was helping me with the identification. I was on the lookout for that genus – it’s much more rare. It’s typically out in the day and not as abundant.”

Mindee says her SIT study abroad experience was quite different from what many of her friends did. “My friends who were abroad – they were doing completely different things. Even the ones doing science were in the cities. Meanwhile, I was saying, ‘OK, guys, you’re not gonna hear from me. I’ll be in the Amazon for a week.’”

Not only does SIT Ecuador go deep into the Amazon, students visit the Galapagos Islands, the famous site of Charles Darwin’s studies that helped form his theory of evolution. The aim is more than tourism, says Mindee. “The work was challenging — kind of rare for study abroad.”

Because students do hands-on scientific work, says Xavier, the competitive program requires them to have  a strong interest in the field, high grades, and a background in biology and environmental studies.

Their work is often vital, he explains. “If its habitat is destroyed, a species disappears altogether. This one that Mindee discovered lives in an area of only 1,000 acres. This is why in Ecuador we still find new species every year, and why preservation of these habitats is so important. You can easily lose two or three species in a very small area.”

For Mindee and other students, the rewards that come from SIT’s academic focus are considerable. “I hope to be part of the paper where they’re going to describe the new species,” says Mindee. Such publications, she explains, will use her data, and data from previous SIT students. She may also seek publication of her Independent Study Project, which is a core component of most SIT Study Abroad programs.

Academic Director Silva says Ecuador is a particularly good place for students who want to study biology and ecosystems. “Ecuador has a lot of ecological diversity and habitat types.. New species are discovered an average of two times per year, which is amazing. In other parts of the world it might be one new species every 10 years.”

SIT Ecuador, he says, is unusual in other ways. The program attracts students from many universities, many of them working with well-known professors. “We also have a network of reserves and national parks, and we work with local scientists,” says Xavier. “This is a positive difference for SIT – we work in every corner of the country.”