FCAT excels at community-engaged scientific research, with a focus on the Tropical Andes in South America.

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Why the Tropical Andes? One reason is that they support exceptionally high levels of biological diversity and endemism (species which occur there and nowhere else). They also support culturally diverse human populations, which often depend upon natural resources for their livelihood. As a consequence, there is often a tension between socio-economic development and conservation of diversity and natural resources in this region. FCAT works at this intersection, with a focus on northwestern Ecuador, at the transition of the Chocó and Tumbesian Biogeographic zones.

FCAT’s community-engaged scientific research serves as a vehicle to coordinate, consolidate, and extend conservation efforts in northwest Ecuador and beyond. For over 15 years, we have used this approach to empower local residents and governmental and non-governmental agencies to obtain, interpret, and make use of reliable data required to effectively conserve critical rainforest habitat. Some examples our current research projects include:

Forest fragmentation

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The overwhelming threat to biodiversity in northwest Ecuador is deforestation. By 1996, over 96% of northwest Ecuador’s primary forest was already lost—a stark indicator of the region’s rampant deforestation, and the need for conservation efforts. This is thought to be leading to dramatic species declines, but little data on rates of deforestation in the area exists, and even less on how these activities impact natural systems. Consequently, we lack a framework to understand how to minimize negative impacts on biodiversity while maximizing resident well-being. To meet this need for information, FCAT has mapped forest fragments at the landscape level and documented patterns of diversity for a wide range of organisms, from palm trees to primates, amphibians to orchid bees, soil microbes to large, fruit-eating birds. Our work indicates heterogeneous responses to fragmentation across these groups of animals and plants, but points to the importance of maintaining high quality forest fragments as well as maintaining trees in the agricultural matrix surrounding fragments. We have leveraged these results to protect priority fragments via developing ecotourism ventures for local fragment owners or obtaining funding for purchase and conservation of fragments of high conservation value.

Relevant publications:

  • Walter, S.T., L. Browne, J. Freile, J. Olivo, M. Gonzalez, and J. Karubian. 2017. Surrounding tree cover predicts diversity of large-bodied frugivorous birds in forest fragments. Biotropica 49: 838-847. Link to PDF
  • Walter, S.T., L. Browne, J. Freile, J. Olivo, M. Gonzalez, and J. Karubian. 2017. Surrounding tree cover predicts diversity of large-bodied frugivorous birds in forest fragments. Biotropica 49: 838-847. Link to PDF
  • Botsch, J.C, S.T. Walter, S.T., J. Karubian, N. González, E. Dobbs, and B.J. Brosi. 2017. Impacts of forest fragmentation on orchid bee diversity (Hymenoptera: Apidae: Euglossini) in the Chocó biodiversity hotspot of northwest Ecuador. Journal of Insect Conservation 21: 633-643. Link to PDF
  • Browne, L., K. Ottewell, and J. Karubian. 2015. Short-term genetic consequences of habitat loss and fragmentation for the neotropical palm Oenocarpus bataua. Heredity. Link to PDF
  • Browne, L., M. Gonzalez, and J. Karubian. 2015. Biodiversity in forest fragments of the Mache-Chindul Reserve. Quito, Ecuador. Link to PDF
  • Durães, R., Carrasco, L., Smith, T. B., and J. Karubian. 2013. Relative effects of forest degradation versus fragmentation on avian communities in a Neotropical biodiversity hotspot. Biological Conservation 166: 203-211. Link to PDF

Water quality

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As crops and pastures replace forests in tropical landscapes, the use of pesticides and herbicides typically increases. In northwest Ecuador, the consequences of these added stressors to aquatic systems is not well understood, nor is the impact on human public health. FCAT conducts research on the ecological health of freshwater streams, rivers and lakes in northwest Ecuador, with a particular focus on the Laguna de Cube. This small lake is a RAMSAR (i.e., a wetland site of international importance) site that supports critically important populations of waterbirds and herpetofauna, but that is threatened by significant inputs of human waste and agricultural contaminants. Moreover, a rapidly growing population center removes an ever-increasing amount of water from the lake during the dry season to meet its water needs. FCAT monitors diversity and abundance of key indicator groups of animals in the lake as well as water quality, and works with local government and residents to ensure the health of this critically important resource for both human and natural systems.

Endangered species

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The diversity of plants and animals in the Tropical Andes rivals that of any other habitat on the planet, yet many of these organisms are very poorly known and threatened with extinction. FCAT has taken a lead role documenting the basic biology, natural history, and conservation requirements of poorly known and endangered species in this region. We have documented the reproductive biology, home ranges, and habitat requirements of several threatened bird species including the Banded Ground-cuckoo (Neomorphus radiolosus), the Brown Wood Rail (Aramides wolfii) and the Long-wattled Umbrellabird (Cephalopterus penduliger). We have also provided some of the first inventories for birds, amphibians, orchid bees, palms and other groups from this region. In addition to publishing our work in international peer-reviewed journals, we proactively make this information available to local residents and government agencies, to assist with conservation planning

Relevant Publications:

  • Karubian, J., L. Carrasco, P. Mena, J. Olivo, D. Cabrera, F. Castillo, R. Durães, and N. El Ksabi. 2011. Nesting biology, home range, and habitat use of the brown wood-rail (Aramides wolfi) in northwest Ecuador. Wilson Journal of Ornithology 123: 137-141. Link to PDF
  • Karubian, J. 2011. The Long-wattled Umbrellabid: the feathered gardeners of the Choco. Terra Incognita 72: 8-18. Link to PDF
  • Karubian, J. 2010. Pompadours in the palms. Natural History Magazine. 119: 28-32. Link to PDF
  • Karubian, J. 2009. The secret life of the Long-wattled Umbrellabird. El Commercio Newspaper, Ecuador. Link to PDF
  • Karubian, J. and L. Carrasco. 2008. Home range and habitat preferences of the Banded Ground-cuckoo Neomorphus radiolosus. Wilson Journal of Ornithology 120:205-209. Link to PDF
  • Karubian, J., L. Carrasco, D. Cabrera, A. Cook, and J. Olivo. 2007. Nesting biology of the banded-ground cuckoo. Wilson Journal of Ornithology 119(2):222-228. Link to PDF
  • Karubian, J., G. Casteneda, J.F. Freile, T. Santander, and T.B. Smith. 2003. Breeding biology and nesting behavior of the long-wattled umbrellabird Cephalopterus penduliger in northwestern Ecuador. Bird Conservation International 13:351-360. Link to PDF

Ecological processes

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Patterns of biodiversity ultimately arise from ecological and evolutionary processes, and FCAT has focused on understanding how these processes may be impacted by human activities. A key focus here is seed dispersal, which plants depend upon for successful reproduction and to adapt to changing environmental conditions. Large-bodied vertebrates such as umbrellabirds, toucans, and primates are key seed dispersal agents for many rainforest tree species, and we have used radio tracking in combination with genetic analyses to better understand the role that these large-bodied vertebrates play in maintaining healthy forests. Disturbingly, we have found strong evidence that seed dispersal by some key frugivores breaks down in the context of forest fragmentation, probably because several species avoid isolated forest patches. Encouragingly, however, other species such as toucans may provide connectivity between these patches if there are enough trees in the agricultural matrix.

  • Browne, L. and J. Karubian. 2018. Rare genotype advantage promotes survival and genetic diversity of a tropical palm. New Phytologist. Link to PDF
  • Ottewell, K., L. Browne, D. Cabrera, J. Olivo, and J. Karubian. 2018. Genetic diversity of dispersed seeds is highly variable among leks of the long-wattled umbrellabird. Acta Oecologica. 86: 31-37. Link to PDF
  •  Browne, L. and J. Karubian. 2016. Negative frequency-dependent selection for rare genotypes promotes genetic diversity of a tropical palm. Ecology Letters. 19: 1439-1447. Link to PDF
  • Karubian, J., L. Browne, D. Cabrera, M. Chambers, and J. Olivo. 2016. Relative influence of relatedness, conspecific density, and microhabitat on seedling survival and growth of an animal-dispersed Neotropical palm, Oenocarpus bataua. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 182: 425-438. Link to PDF
  • G. F. M. Jongsma, R. W. Hedley, R. Durães, and J. Karubian. 2014. Amphibian Diversity and Species Composition in Relation to Habitat Type and Alteration in the Mache–Chindul Reserve, Northwest Ecuador. Herpetologica 70:34-46. Link to PDF
  • Karubian, J. and R. Durães. Impacts of mating behavior on plant-animal seed dispersal mutualisms: a case study from a Neotropical lek-breeding bird. In Sexual Selection: Insights from the Neotropics (eds. R. Macedo and G. Machado). Elsivier Press. Pp. 365-390. Link to PDF
  • Carrasco, L., Berg, K. S., Litz, J., Cook, A. and J. Karubian. 2013. Avifauna of the Mache-Chindul Reserve, northwest Ecuador. Neotropical Ornithology 24: 331-324. Link to PDF
  • Scofield, D.G., P.E. Smouse, J. Karubian and V.L. Sork. 2012. Using alpha, beta, and gamma diversity to characterize seed dispersal by animals: social behavior matters. American Naturalist. Link to PDF
  • Karubian, J., L. Browne, C. Bosque, T. Carlo, M. Galetti, B.A. Loiselle, J.G. Blake, D. Cabrera, R. Durães, F.M. Labecca, K.M. Holbrook, R. Holland, W. Jetz, F. Kummeth, J. Olivo, K. Ottewell, G. Papadakis, G. Rivas, S. Steiger, B. Voirin, and M. Wikelski. 2012. Seed dispersal by Neotropical birds: emerging patterns and underlying processes. Neotropical Ornithology. Link to PDF
  • Ottewell, K., E. Grey, F. Castillo, and J. Karubian. 2012. Direct parentage analysis reveals non-leptokurtic pollen dispersal in the insect-pollinated tropical palm Oenocarpus bataua. Heredity. doi: 10.1038/hdy.2012.40. Link to PDF  | Commentary | Podcast
  • Karubian, J., R. Durães, J. Storey, and T.B. Smith. 2012. Mating behavior drives seed dispersal in the long-wattled umbrellabird Cephalopterus penduliger. Biotropica 44: 689-698. Link to PDF | *Recipient2013 Award for Excellence in Tropical Biology & Conservation 
  • Karubian, J., V.L. Sork, T. Roorda, R. Durães, and T.B. Smith. 2010. Destination-based dispersal by the long-wattled umbrellabird Cephalopterus penduliger homogenizes genetic structure of a tropical palm. Molecular Ecology 19: 1745-1753. Link to PDF | Cover Page
  • Karubian, J. and R. Durães. 2009. Effects of seed disperser social behavior on patterns of seed movement and deposition Oecologia Brasiliensis 13(1): 45-57. Link to PDF
  • Carrasco, L., A. Cook, and J. Karubian. 2008. Range extensions for eight species of bird in the Mache-Chindul mountains, Ecuador. Cotinga 29:72-76. Link to PDF