Experiential Science Education - Yanayacu, Ecuador 2010

Dale Novotny

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Hometown:  Grand Island, Nebraska


University/Department:  University of Wyoming:  International Studies, Environment Natural Resources

Why did you decide to go on the Yanayacu Research Trip?  It was an opportunity to go to Ecuador and learn things in a field that I am not normally exposed to.

What was the most important thing you learned?  I have a better understanding of the amount of things still unknown in tropical ecosystems.  For example, the number of species that are still unknown and undescribed. 

How has this experience changed you?    It has definitely expanded my learning of entomology.   I’ve never seen ecosystems like this one, and I’ve been all around Latin America, from the cloud forests of Costa Rica, to the lowland rainforests of Panama. This has broadened my horizons by exposing me to the climate and creatures of this area.

What are your plans for the future?  I plan to get a Master’s degree in the future, but for now: In August I will be attending the UC Berkeley, Institute for Humane Studies' workshop: “Poverty and Prosperity in the Age of Globalization”.  I will also go to San Diego State University and work as an assistant research technician. The project's purpose is to label cigarettes as toxicwaste. I will be helping to run surveys at aquatic marine sanctuaries.   We will be testing this idea by placing cigarette butts in a tank, and observing their effects on organisms.In September I start my internship for the Foreign Agriculture Service in Seoul, South Korea.  I will be working the Agricultural Trade office to promote U.S. products in Korean markets.

What advice would you give a young scientist?  Discover a field you are interested in, then build on what you know.  Explore fields and careers in that area.

Dales' Reflections on his Ecuador Experience:

Natural Resources and Research Opportunities at Yanayacu Biological Station

A Report on Research Experience Funded in Part by a Haub Student Research and Creative Activities Grant

Dale Novotny
BA Environment Natural Resources
BA International Studies


Introduction

Research experience is often a pivotal step in the learning process for undergraduates and others who aspire to be professionals. Those who have had the opportunity to conduct research abroad or in a hands-on setting within their field know the benefits this type of experience carries. With financial support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and a Haub Student Research and Creative Activities Grant from the University of Wyoming’s Helga and Otto Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources, I was allowed the opportunity to accompany a small research group composed of grant recipients and participants selected by Dr. Scott Shaw and Graduate Assistant Guinevere Z. Jones of UW’s Renewable Resources department.

The purpose of the trip was to collect specimens of Lepidoptera (caterpillars) and Meteorus (Hymenoptera: Braconidae) (wasps) for continuing primary research being conducted by Shaw and Jones for their NSF project titled “Caterpillars and Parasitoids of the Eastern Andes of Ecuador”. The two are examining the trophic relationships of these organisms in their unique and rapidly disappearing high Andean habitat in Ecuador. The genus Meteorus, Jones’ thesis topic, is of special interest because of its exceptionally high species richness in the region (she has discovered 30 new species there so far). The Lepidoptera are important to sample because they are the primary herbivores of many tropical plants, including some that may be toxic to other herbivores, and are commonly parasitized by the Meteorus which inject eggs into many species of Lepidoptera. New species are constantly being discovered and described; since Shaw began his research on the wasp family Braconidae in 1979, he (along with the aid of his students) has described 125 new species of wasps from 28 countries.

My participation on this trip allowed me the opportunity to learn specimen collection methods such as sweep-netting, the use of a “beating sheet” for caterpillar collection, and plotting. I was also exposed to various aspects of primary research, such as the taxonomical nomenclature of newly described species in a field foreign to my background. Our research group consisted of five NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) grant recipients (myself being one), two NSF Research Experience for Teachers (RET) recipients, organizers Shaw and Jones, and five voluntary participants using the trip to gain experience and earn elective credit for an honors course in tropical ecology. During my stay I was able to take a day off from collecting to explore the natural resources and resource uses of the research station with the current manager, Andrew (Drew) Townsend (an Entomology MS graduate of UW). Being the only Environment and Natural Resource (ENR) student on the trip and possessing a special interest in building and resource use efficiency, this was an especially enjoyable day as well as an excellent opportunity to make connections to my ENR background on an entomologically-focused research trip. On my tour of the facility with Townsend, I was able to gain an insider’s view of the structure and surrounding environment of the station, as well as its water, electricity, labor, and sanitation resource use and availability.

 
Structure and Environment

Yanayacu Biological Research Station is located approximately 240km outside of the metropolitan sprawl of Quito, in Napo Province, Ecuador. The closest formal settlement to the station is the small town of Cosanga[1]. The tropical ecosystems of Ecuador have been identified as some of the greatest hotspots for biodiversity on the planet (Brehm, et al; 2008), and the country as a whole has been classified as ‘megadiverse’; a term used in the ecological community to describe a select number of countries possessing extraordinary biodiversity (Fiedler et al; 2008). In its relatively remote location and high elevation (~2200M), the station is ripe for viewing the outstanding biodiversity of the region, especially the amazing array of insect diversity, which is the focus of the majority of visiting research groups.

Yanayacu began as a small, single structure and has branched into an entire research compound. The site includes a kitchen with part-time staff (depending on occupancy), rooms with bunked sleeping accommodations, a greenhouse, two restrooms, two showers, a library, offices, and a live specimen rearing and holding structure known as “la maquina” or “the machine” (as it produces many winged specimens morphed from the hundreds of bagged caterpillars that hang from its ceiling, as well as much useful data).

At first glance, one may not realize that the main structure was built with reuse and sustainability in mind. Many of the native timber support beams and planks used to construct the station are from fallen trees recovered yards away in the surrounding forest. The use of fallen timber decreases the demand for logged timber, preserving forest environments, and also eliminates the cost and carbon footprint of transporting large building materials to the station’s remote site.

Erosion is always a factor to consider when erecting a foundation in a tropical environment. Beneath (and within) the concrete base of the main structure is non-compostable waste such as glass, plastic, steel cans, and excess construction materials. Waste disposal systems, as discussed later, are lacking in this region. The reuse of these waste materials to buffer the foundation translates to fewer construction materials used, a thicker, more robust foundation, and the elimination of accumulating piles of non-compostable waste byproducts.


Water

Fresh water is an abundant resource in a cloud forest environment and easy to come by. Finding and transporting a reliable, potable water source for use at a moderately-sized, remotely located research station presents more of a challenge. Instead of piping in water from nearby Cosanga (~4km), or having water brought in by tank truck, the station has a more feasible solution that eliminates the need for such expensive infrastructure. 

All the water used at the station is piped in from a natural spring that emerges only a few hundred yards uphill. The location of this source is coincidentally perfect. The spring’s position above the station allows the utilization of gravity to make water pressure in all the facilities similar to any metropolitan building, and does not require the use of pumps. Because of the epic amount of rainfall the area receives each year (>500cm) the spring’s aquifer is continually recharged and its use is sustainable.  

Two large holding tanks with a combined capacity of approximately 2650 liters (~700 gallons) collect water from the spring and dispense it to the station through a simple above-ground PVC pipe system. The water in the tanks is checked for contaminants bimonthly by Townsend (or the current manager), who has not encountered a problem to date.

Hot water (for showers only) at the station is provided by a propane vent tankless water heater. This relatively new and efficient technology eliminates the wasted energy used by older tank water heaters that keep a continuous ballast of hot water, and instead only heats water (directly) when needed. This system ensures a continuous supply of hot water on demand. The prices for propane, which is also used for all heating applications in the kitchen, is quite low in the nearby towns, at around $2.00-$2.50 for a five gallon tank refill, making this system economical as well. The amount of water and propane used at the station is dependent upon the number of guests residing at any given time and is completely variable.

The only potential issues with the water system were a small amount of algal growth in one holding tank, and the possibility of contamination of the spring’s aquifer from nearby free-range cattle grazing. One of the tanks is blue while the other is black. A small amount of algae grows on the outside of both tanks around overflow, and on the interior of only the blue tank. Algae require sunlight for photosynthesis, and light does not permeate through the black tank as it does through the blue tank, explaining the difference. A simple remedy for this difference could be to paint the blue tank black. As for the cattle, free-range grazing and land rights are loosely defined and/or may not ever be enforced in this region as is common in many campesinos (farms/country sides) around Latin America. Aquifer contamination may be something to keep an eye out for when testing the tanks, but little else can be done (especially in the interest of keeping good neighbors), and with no water concerns to date, a mindful eye is the best approach.

 
Electricity

Water has another important use at Yanayacu; all of the station’s electricity is supplied by hydroelectric generation. The electrical system at the station had a very interesting setup; it took advantage of the available resources for generating electricity in the surrounding environment and was oriented in a manner which I had never seen.

The water intake for the generating system is located approximately a half mile above the station in a stream surrounded by dense growth. Water enters a 2½in (6.35cm) diameter PVC pipe and is transported downhill in the above ground pipe to a turbine generator about a quarter mile below the station. As water enters the turbine housing, it is moving swiftly from the force of gravity. It is then forced through a conical jet nozzle and through the turbine blades, powering electrical generation. The end water pressure from gravity alone was surprising: the system operates at 50psi, and has a standing shut-off pressure of nearly 120psi. The use of gravity in this system resulting from the topographical differences between the intake valve position and the actual generation site allows for higher water pressure to pass through the turbine, and thus more electricity to be generated than in hydroelectric systems where the intake and output are in the same position (housing) or water source.

The generator housing is positioned next to a creek where the used water empties. Electricity is brought to the station via an underground rubberized wire and stored in a linked matrix of 12 deep-cycle marine batteries. The batteries are connected to a router and output monitoring system which dispenses electricity throughout the station. During high-use times, the system may automatically shut off for a period if the stored power in the batteries becomes too low and needs replenished. Excess power produced during low-use periods is routed to overflow coils located in the station’s library. These coils produce a small amount of heat, which is the reason they were positioned in the library, a cold room, but this slight benefit may be outweighed by the humming noise they produce.

Yanayacu’s system of hydroelectric generation currently provides 10 amp units of electricity to the station, and there is room for improvement. In its current configuration, the turbine generator is working at near half capacity and has room for a second water intake line. With a second intake, mirroring the construction (and possibly position) of the first, the station could double electrical production with the same unit and may even be able to eliminate the need for batteries. In times with very few or no renters at the station, electricity requirements are usually fulfilled by a direct feed from the generator, bypassing the need to take stored power from the batteries. According to Townsend, the batteries need to be replaced about every 18 months, and with a cost of $120 per battery, and no facility nearby to recycle them, the batteries are both an economic and environmental consideration.

The original hydroelectric system was installed by imported professionals from the company Outback Power Systems[2], who correctly gauged the angles, slopes, and positioning of the piping as well as the correct materials to use. The computerized electrical routing system is made by Hi-Power Hydro, a company specializing in power generating systems of similar design and remote application. The intake housing and most of the piping were destroyed and washed downstream in a torrential storm and landslide in 2007 (see picture). Luckily, the staff was able to repair the system in short time. Landslides also occasionally take out sections of road, power lines, and any other forms of infrastructure that stand in their path, posing a challenge to most resource delivery systems in this region. 

The decision to use hydroelectric generation for the electrical needs of the station by proprietor Harold Greeney, III, is a commendable effort to work with the environment to produce a sustainable resource. An easier and less environmentally conscious choice for supplying electrical needs could have been to cut a path for and connect a power line to San Isidro[3] (~2km), a nearby bird viewing station for tourists which draws power from the national grid. The hydroelectric generation system at Yanayacu is the product of smart design and should serve the station well for many years. It can also stand as a positive case study for structures in similar environments and with similar electrical needs.

 
Labor

A full-time staff composed of local area residents and live-in professionals provides most of the labor requirements at the station. The cooking staff is skilled in their trade and often rotate shifts on a work schedule which ensures that the recipients of the high (regional) wages paid as well as the menus are constantly cycling. Cooks at the station are also responsible for the task of procuring the ingredients to be used in their dishes. They use a cooking allowance from the station’s funds to shop local produce markets for goods. This ensures that fresh, low-cost, high quality local goods are always incorporated into meals, and that the transportation costs to the consumer and to the environment resulting from buying products at convenience stores are forgone. 

Animal protein sources are somewhat of a rarity at Yanayacu due to the lack of refrigeration systems (which require too much energy) at the station. This occasional resource is supplied by the closest neighbor to the station who operates a trout farm (which I was also able to tour in brief), and eggs which do not require refrigeration.

Many researchers who visit the station bring expensive equipment with them, making security a concern. The high wages paid to the Yanayacu cleaning, linens, and cooking staff (about twice the local average) make these positions highly coveted, deterring theft. This passive approach to security seems to work well as there have been very few incidents of theft in the station’s history. Any resident, employee, or visitor caught stealing or otherwise disturbing the peace is dismissed from the premise. Perimeter security of the compound is handled by two resident dogs that will raise an alarm for anyone approaching.

 
Sanitation

A final aspect to consider on any tour of a facility’s resources is the resting places of used resources; the disposal and sanitation systems. Once again in this necessary department, Yanayacu appears to work more with the environment than against it.

Grey water and waste water from the station’s bathrooms and kitchen drain out to an open septic pit below the compound via underground PVC. With the abundance of fresh water resources in this environment, there is no need to reuse this wastewater (as there is in drier or more arid climates). Odor from the pit is surprisingly low, as the immense amount of vegetation and natural biological processes attacking organic waste sequesters any unpleasant contact. According to Townsend, the only problem with the sanitation pit to date was an incident where one of the dogs fell in and had to be rescued.

Non-compostable garbage pick-up from the station is handled by regional government funded truck services and is often sporadic. The fact that this disposal system exists and is available for use at Yanayacu’s remote location is an encouraging sign of infrastructure development given the lower economic (developing) status of Ecuador. The trucks do not keep strict pick-up schedules and garbage often accumulates and has to be taken in the back of the station’s truck to the nearest dump. Compostable waste products are collected in separate receptacles in the kitchen and emptied into a compost pit. The compost is used in a small greenhouse which grows herbs, a few vegetables, and a select variety of Lepidoptera food plants that are difficult to find. There are no formal recycling services available to the station, and reuse is often the best option.

 
Conclusion

The ability to conduct research abroad is an undoubtedly beneficial experience. By applying for and receiving several grants, including the Haub Student Research and Creative Activities Grant, I was able to experience first-hand the benefits of this stellar opportunity. The chance to travel to the Yanayacu Biological Station and learn in its extraordinary environment was unforgettable, and the opportunity to learn about its natural resources and resource use was intriguing. Yanayacu sets a good example of how to use available resources sustainably, and how to work with and in an environment instead of against it.

 
Acknowledgments:

I would like to thank these people and institutions for their support and contributions to this research trip:

Dr. Scott Shaw, Professor of Entomology at the University of Wyoming (UW). braconid@uwyo.edu
Dr. Gregory K. Brown, Assoc. Dean/Professor, UW Botany dept. gkbrown@uwyo.edu
Dr. Harold F. Greeney III. revmmoss@yahoo.com
Drew Townsend, MS Entomology (University of WY) yanayacu@gmail.com
Guinevere Z. Jones Graduate Assistant, UW Renewable Resources dept. gjones9@uwyo.edu
The National Science Foundation , NSF-REU grant DEB-09-13110.
The Helga and Otto Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources


Sources

1. Brehm, et al

2. Fiedler, et al (format pending)

 

[1] For more complete directions and other useful information about the station, visit yanayacu.org, or email yanayacu@gmail.com

[2] For more information on this company and their products, see www.outbackpower.com

[3] Yanayacu is only available to research groups. To visit this region in a touristic capacity, see www.cabanasanisidro.com


If you would like to ask Dale a question about science please send him an email at:  dale@uwyo.edu