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Biodiversity trip takes students to Ecuador to monitor wildlife, study God’s creation

Students in the Chocó rainforest

Before they returned to Liberty University’s campus for the spring semester, 14 students and two professors spent 10 days (Jan. 8-18) in Ecuador and the nearby Galapagos Islands, one of the most biodiverse areas in the world, studying creatures big and small and learning how to preserve them.

The students came primarily from the Biology & Chemistry Department and were led by biology professors Drs. Kyle Harris and Sherrie Welfel. The annual trip was made in coordination with LU Send, which facilitates all student group travel and experiential learning opportunities in the U.S. and abroad. Some of the students on the trip fulfilled course credits in biology and creation studies (CRST 290).

Beginning in Ecuador’s capital of Quito on Jan. 8, the group traveled into the Chocó rainforest and Mindo cloud forest west of the Andes Mountains, where they spent most of the trip conducting night surveys, observing birds in the station’s canopy tower, and learning about wildlife conservation and deforestation. Whether it was feeding nectar to hummingbirds that landed on their hands or picking up snakes and lizards off the forest floor, the team was constantly able to interact with the area’s biodiversity.

Harris with students during a night survey.

“It’s unique in Ecuador in that you have the Andes Mountains that come through, where you can go to the east side and into the Amazon or to the west side into the Chocó and the cloud forest,” Harris said. “There are hotspots for biodiversity in other places (globally), but this one is very accessible for us and a great place to return to. I had never explored the Chocó area with students before, so that was really special.”

One of the many species the group located and observed in the rainforest during night surveys was the Tudor’s Coffee Snake, or Ninia guytudori, a newly announced species by Harris and his collaborators. Harris has been working on publishing research on several other newly discovered species – including a type of eyelash viper. While Liberty students have not been directly involved in the discoveries, those who went to Ecuador were able to collect specimens and hold the coffee snake.

The group then spent the latter part of the trip on San Cristobal Island in the Galapagos Islands, observing species like giant tortoises, marine iguanas, countless birds and plants, and more before strapping on their flippers to snorkel alongside hammerhead sharks, sea turtles, and other marine life.

Senior Jordan Whitt and junior Christian Gilbert, both studying zoo & wildlife biology, saw this trip as a perfect opportunity to continue exploring wildlife diversity after a trip to Panama, also led by Harris, last August. Both said snorkeling off the coast of San Cristobal was a particularly memorable experience, along with hearing a jaguar call in the middle of a night survey in the Chocó.

Christian Gilbert holds a parrot snake.

The Liberty group left cameras in the rainforest to monitor wildlife in the coming months and expects the guides stationed there to send photos later this spring. The students are now drafting research papers based on their work on the trip.

True to the purpose of these trips, the students said they were inspired and reinvigorated by what they saw, leading them to approach their studies back at Liberty with newfound knowledge and assurance in their career aspirations.

“This trip provided me with the opportunity to apply what I have learned in the classroom out in the field, and the activities we did on the trip allowed me to gain a better understanding and appreciation for what we have learned,” Whitt said. “These trips also confirm that I made the right decision in my major and help me to know what kind of career I would like to pursue. These trips provide once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that I will never forget.”

“The trips have impacted my studies by pushing me to aim higher,” Gilbert added. “They have made me more excited about what my life could be like post school and the jobs that are waiting for me in the future.”

The next trip, led by Harris, will be to the east Asian country of Sri Lanka in August before the fall semester. Among other activities, the trip will explore the World Heritage Site of Sinharaja and the diverse ecosystems of Yala National Park — home to iconic wildlife like elephants, sloth bears, and hornbills — in addition to learning about preserving the Sri Lankan Leopard in Tissamaharama and snorkeling in Marissa Bay by the Indian Ocean. Applications are due by April 1.

“Any student can go. You don’t have to be a biology major or do it for course credit,” Harris said. “It’d be great to see more and more students go as a way to see the world, study what God has made. When it comes down to it, we are going to these places to explore God’s creation and how we can help it to thrive, regardless of our academic discipline.”

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