Into the wild

TU students travel to the heart of the Peruvian Amazon for hands-on field research

Students in Peru at Machu Picchu ruins
A visit to the Incan city of Machu Picchu is on the syllabus for Biology 447/547: Tropical Field Ecology in Peru.

TOWSON, Md. (Nov. 11, 2010)—There is one Towson University course to which students cannot walk. Tropical Field Ecology in Peru is a three-week biology class that takes 12 TU students to Central America and into the Amazonian rainforest.

The annual expedition, now entering its fourth year, is led by Harald Beck, research director of Tropical Field Ecology in Peru and assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Towson.

“I conducted my dissertation research in Peru 15 years ago, and since then have been back pretty much every year,” says Beck, whose own research focuses on how natural and man-made destruction affects the population dynamics of mammals and plants in the Amazon.

The course takes place in Manú National Park which, at 2 million acres, is one of the largest rainforest reserves in the world. Home to more than 15,000 types of plants, 1,000 species of birds and hundreds of animals, it is the perfect place to conduct biological research. But the journey there is long and arduous, requiring a bus trip over the Andes Mountains and a very long boat ride.

“The reason Manú is so protected and pristine is because the only way to get there is by boat,” explains Beck. “It takes us three and a half days up the Manú River to get to the field station.”

The Cocha Cashu Biological Station—a cutting-edge field research center equipped with solar-powered electricity, Internet access and a scientific library—is where students spend the next nine days working in small teams on a wide range of ecological research projects.

Harald Beck and his students on Amazon river boat
The class and Beck, front left, take a three-day cruise to the field station in Manú National Park, which is accessible only by boat.

"My group worked on frog densities in the wallows and ponds," says Rebecca Zeroth, a TU grad who participated in the program last May. "Another group worked to see if caimans had a habitat preference along the lake.”

The burgeoning biologists spend most of the day in the field, observing wildlife and collecting and analyzing data.

To help them navigate their way through the thick vegetation of the rainforest, Beck encourages his students to buy a machete. “It’s a wonderful tool, when used wisely. It moves things out of the way.”

“It's harder to use than it looks on TV,” reports Zeroth, “but definitely useful. A lot of the trails had grown back and we had to widen them so that next year they’d still be there.”

After a busy day of research and traiblazing, the students gather for dinner and a discussion of findings before retiring to their tents in the forest, where they sleep amidst such creatures as anacondas, jaguars, scorpions and bullet ants.

“There are lots of things moving around at night,” says Beck. “So the students stay in groups of two for safety.” As a result, the class has had few direct encounters.

Says Zeroth, “We definitely heard some bumps in the night, though. There were a few scary moments where I could hear something moving outside of the tent.”

Students interested in the course should visit the course website for more information, including application procedures.





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