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Biology professor Joe Luczkovich stands at the back of the boat with students from the marine class returning from a day trip to Isla Taboga (visible in background) in the Pacific. Students are Allison Ballance (standing), Chris Wilson, Meaghan Cutchin, Emily Mosman, Caitlin Bell, Jiana Menendez, Jarrod Underwood, Kerrie Steers and Abby Smith. Students enjoyed fields trips to see what they had been discussing in classrooms. (Photo by Kyle Summers)


ECU Group Enjoys Tropical Wildlife on Study Abroad

By Christine Neff

A textbook lesson or classroom lecture can’t match the experience of studying animals in their natural habitat – especially when that habitat is a tropical one.

Imagine, watching a troop of spider monkeys perform acrobatics, hearing the distinctive call of a tungara frog in the wild or swimming alongside an ocean triggerfish.

It would sure beat reading about it.

Which is why Joseph Luczkovich, Susan McRae and Kyle Summers of East Carolina University’s Department of Biology took a group of students to Panama this summer to teach them about terrestrial and marine ecology.
“It’s a lot harder for students to get interested in studying an animal in a textbook or seeing one that has been preserved in a jar of formaldehyde. When you see a live organism feeding and swimming, you remember it a lot better. There’s no substitute for that experience,” Luczkovich said.

The month-long trip was organized with the help of the Smithsonian, which runs the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in the Central American country.

Dr. Kyle Summers holds a brown caiman, Caiman crocodilus fuscus, captured along the Rio Chagres near Gamboa. Christopher Wilson and Allison Ballance look on. (Photo by Susan McRae)

The first two weeks focused on terrestrial ecology and had students taking in a variety of plant and animal life at nature reserves in and around the town of Gamboa.

Students started the day early with bird-watching trips. Afternoons were spent in the classroom with ECU faculty and guest scientists presenting lectures. Evenings involved heading to the field to discover frogs and other night creatures.

“The great thing about it was that we could lecture about these things and then go out and show students in the field what we were talking about,” said Summers.

McRae remembers one teachable moment vividly. The group had just arrived at Barro Colorado Island, an STRI nature reserve, and was waiting indoors for a tour to begin when a howler monkey and her baby appeared outside the window. The monkey had breakfast and then nursed her baby – not more than 20 feet from where the group sat.
“That was really special for me,” McRae said.

Other highlights included climbing a staircase through the rainforest flanked by tropical birds and plants and seeing an on-going experiment involving red-eyed tree frogs.

“For me, the best part was the connection between the research that was being done and the species we could see. Our students were exposed to the work of some of the most famous biologists in this field,” said Summers.

The second part of the trip, which focused on marine ecology, got students off the land and into Caribbean waters. The group stayed in the coastal Galeta research station run by the Smithsonian and on the San Blas Islands, an archipelago of more than 300 islands.

Joe Luczkovich samples fresh Caribbean plankton during a study abroad with ECU students. (Photo by Jill Luczkovich)
“The diversity of marine life was unbelievable,” Luczkovich said. While snorkeling, students documented sightings of 48 species of fish near Galeta and 78 in the more remote San Blas.

“It felt like we were in an unspoiled environment,” Luczkovich said. “We were able to see natural animal behavior. It was less Disney-esque, more wild.” The island’s accommodations were a bit more wild as well, with rainwater showers, outhouses built over the ocean and one electrical outlet to serve the whole island. But the group adapted, and the seafood-eaters fared especially well: “We had our choice of lobster, crab, conch, fish and octopus. The seafood was amazing,” Summers said.

But even in such lush surroundings, students were expected to work hard. Each two-week, upper level course was worth four credits and involved intense lecture and lab components. Students maintained field notebooks documenting all they saw, did class projects and presentations and took final exams.

Some will apply what they learned to future academic studies or careers in the field, but all will have benefited from the sights and sounds of Panama, the faculty members agreed.

“I think they learned so much, and they will never forget it,’ Luczkovich said.  

This page originally appeared in the Sept. 4, 2009 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at http://www.ecu.edu/news/poe/Arch.cfm.