Biodiversity Project

Documenting Biodiversity In Ecuador

Those areas of Earth with the highest biodiversity and the greatest environmental crises have been identified as biodiversity hotspots. One such hotspot is located on the western coast of Ecuador in South America. This region has experienced over 95% deforestation; only fragments of previous habitats remain. Many species unique to the region (endemics) are likely being lost in the process. However, much of the biodiversity in this imperiled region remains unknown to science. This project will document the biodiversity of reptiles and amphibians at several sites in western Ecuador. The goals of this project are threefold: to document diversity of reptiles and amphibians, to describe new species, and to publish a field guide of the region.

“Visitors can enjoy 140 species of hummingbird in Ecuador.”

Tropical ecosystems are the most biodiverse on earth, and Ecuador exemplifies this diversity. Roughly 8% of amphibian species, 5% of reptile species, 8% of mammal species, and 16% of bird species in the world are found in this diminutive country, which comprises only 0.2% of the world’s land area. To put this into perspective, this area is about the same size as our home state, Arizona. Hectare by hectare, Arizona is the most biodiverse state in the Union. Tourists flock here from all over the world to see 14 species of hummingbirds, another 14 species of rattlesnakes, as well as unusual tropical species like trogons and vine snakes. With so much to see, it is no wonder Arizona gets so much attention! However, comparing Arizona to Ecuador is no comparison at all. Visitors can enjoy 140 species of hummingbirds in Ecuador. Indeed, for most groups of organisms, Ecuador is home to more species than all of the United States and Canada.

The threats to biodiversity in Ecuador are nearly as varied as the diversity itself. Despite popular belief, the Amazon rainforest is not as threatened as most other tropical ecosystems. While the number of hectares (or square miles) destroyed each year is alarming, the majority of the Amazon Basin is largely intact. Threats in Amazonian Ecuador include oil exploration and timber harvesting, and these industries have left an indelible mark on the westernmost reaches of this part of the Amazon basin. However, the situation in western Ecuador is much more of a crisis. Less than 5% of forests are left intact (Dodson and Gentry 1991). Deep valleys and vast mountains are denuded. The majority of the destruction in the west comes from cattle, followed by other forms of agriculture. Coffee, banana, and palm oil are huge export businesses. These threats, combined with the unique nature of biodiversity in western Ecuador have led scientists to deem this region part of one of the world’s Biodiversity Hotspots – an area in dire need of protection.

Despite such proclamations, scientific efforts lag far behind conservation necessities. The few remaining tracts of forest are largely unexplored by many specialties of science. The reptile and amphibian fauna, while assuredly rich and diverse, is known only from a few collecting localities, and published information of the region is particularly depauperate. Clearly, basic ecological information is needed for these understudied taxa in these imperiled ecosystems, and our work aims to provide just that, ultimately helping to save the flora and fauna of Ecuador.

Additional Reading

  • A Neotropical Companion, by Kritcher 1998. Available at used for about $10.
  • Megadiverse Ecuador by Luis Coloma and Santiago Ron. 2001. This is a nice coffee table book with plenty of great photographs of herps, birds and mammals.
  • The Diversity of Life by E. O. Wilson. 1992. This is a good popular read on patterns of biodiversity as well as conservation concerns with an emphasis on the tropics.
  • Conservation International’s web page for the Tumbes-Chocó-Magdalena : This site has background about why our study sites rank among the Biodiversity Hotspots in the world, in particular need of protection.
  • Dodson, C. H. and A.H. Gentry. 1991. Biological Extinction in Western Ecuador. Annals Missouri Botanical Garden 78:273-295.
  • Lips, K. R., J. K. Reaser, B. E. Young and R. Ibanez. 2001. Amphibian monitoring in Latin America: a protocol manual. Herpetological Circular No 20.
  • Lynch, J.D. and W. E. Duellman. 1997. Frogs of the genus Eleutherodactylus in Western Ecuador: Systematics, ecology, and biogeography. University of Kansas, Natural History Museum, Special Publication 23.
  • Myers, N., R. Mittermeier, C. G. Mittermeier, G. A. B. da Fonseca and J. Kent. 2000. Biodiversity hotspots for conservation priorities. Nature 403:853-858.
  • Skole, D. and C. Tucker. 1993. Tropical deforestation and habitat fragmentation in the Amazon: satellite data from 1978 to 1988. Science 260: 1905-1910.
  • Stevens, G. C. 1989. The latitudinal gradient in geographical range: How can so many species coexist in the tropics? American Naturalist. 133:240-256.

For its size, Ecuador is the most biodiverse country on earth. It holds about 8% of all the species of amphibians on Earth and 16% of bird species–all in a country about the size of Arizona!

Many tropical ecosystems are under dire peril–our study regions in western Ecuador are over 95% deforested.

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