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The cloud forest of Cusuco National Park

Internal News - 11 November 2008

Successful new course takes Bath students into the heart of the cloud forest

Just before the start of the new semester in October, ten third year BSc Biology students successfully completed Bath’s first ever International Field Course in Ecology.

The course was run by Dr Mark O’Connell, a Fellow in the Department of Biology & Biochemistry, and took place 5,000 feet up in the remote cloud forests of Honduras in Central America.

Each student worked over the summer to raise over £1,000 to cover the costs of travel and accommodation.

The students stayed in small field tents at a camp in the Cusuco National Park, which covers 230 square kilometres in the stunningly beautiful Merendon mountains of northwest Honduras.

The area is part of the Meso-American biodiversity hotspot, one of 25 areas recognised as globally important for their biodiversity. The region has more than 17,000 species of plants, 440 mammals, 1,113 birds, 692 reptiles, 555 amphibians and over 500 species of freshwater fish. Many of these species are endemic, little known to science, and threatened by human activity.

The course is designed to provide students with a range of skills for undertaking hypothesis driven research by collecting data from an ‘unyielding’ environment. They also gain an understanding of the difficulties faced by scientists in providing evidence to underpin conservation actions in the context of a developing country.

During the first week of the course the students undertook a range of field exercises to develop skills in measuring environmental gradients, spatial distributions, and animal behaviour. This included pit-fall trapping insects, mist-netting birds, and quantifying forest densities. They also spent a day collecting behavioural data from a troop of Howler Monkeys.

In the final week of the course, the students completed a research project using the new skills they had gained.

There was also a chance to see coffee production at the edge of the national park, and to talk with the park Director about the involvement of local people in biodiversity conservation.

This took place in the local village (Buenos Aires) and was followed by a football match between the University of Bath and the village team. Despite losing 6:0, the University team retired with heads held high!

Dr O’Connell said: “It is wonderful for students to experience first hand how ecological data are used to develop general theory, and then applied to real world situations.”

For the past two years, Dr Peter Long (also a member of Bath’s Biodiversity Lab), has been part of an ongoing scientific programme in the region. The course has provided additional links with the national park, and further scientific collaborations are planned. It is also hoped that in future years, Honduran students will be able to join students from Bath on the course.

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Notes

The carbon footprint of the flights to Honduras will be offset by payments to sequestration projects in the third world that support local communities.