Photographing Ecuador's Biodiversity
Article by Paulo Valerio and Greg Basco of Foto Verde Tours
Photos by Greg Basco © Foto Verde Tours
We live in Costa Rica, a country that is home to astounding biodiversity. In fact, per area, Costa Rica is perhaps the most species-rich country on Earth. It’s an amazing place to photograph nature because there is so much packed into a very tiny space. An ambitious photographer in Costa Rica literally could photograph a toucan at dawn in the rainforest, a towering cloud forest waterfall, a colorful poison frog, a scarlet macaw, a monkey, a flying hummingbird, a tropical beach at sunset, and a red-eyed tree frog in the forest at night all in one day. In fact, we have nearly completed this feat. Perhaps in the future we’ll load up a vehicle with coffee and granola bars and camera gear to see if we can check all those boxes in 24 hours!
But if there’s another country that we love as much as Costa Rica, it’s Ecuador; it’s like Costa Rica on steroids! Ecuador is four times the size of Costa Rica and that translates into more micro-climates and greater numbers of species overall (though not necessarily per area). Plus the mountains are taller in Ecuador, the dry forests are even drier, the rain forests are much more extensive, the cloud forests somehow seem even more enchanting, and the cultural heritage and ethnobotanical diversity of Ecuador is much richer.
For instance, while Costa Rica has 6 species of toucans, Ecuador boasts 17. Costa Rica has around 55 species of hummingbirds, and Ecuador has 132, including a number of species with bizarre long tails. Costa Rica has 5 species of primates, while Ecuador is home to 20. Frogs, lizards, and butterflies exhibit similar variety, and new species are being discovered every year.
In terms of cultural diversity, Costa Rica has 6 indigenous languages that are spoken only by small groups in isolated parts of the country. Ecuador has over 20 different indigenous languages, and three of them are still widely spoken. Kichwa (a cousin of Quechua) is common especially in the Andean highlands. Some businesses in the capital city of Quito will have signage in both Spanish and Kichwa. Waorani and Shuar are common among indigenous peoples in the northern and sourthern parts of Ecuador’s Amazon basin, respectively.
WHY IS ECUADOR SO BIODIVERSE?
Ecuador is one of the most ecologically diverse countries in the world. Covering only 0.2% of the world’s total land mass, this small South American nation is home to around 6,1% of all species of flora and fauna reported worldwide, including around 8% of all amphibian species, 5% of the planet’s reptile species, 18% of all orchids, 8% of all mammal species, and 16% of the world’s bird species. This massive biological diversity in relation to its size has led different conservation organizations to officially classify Ecuador as “mega diverse”.
This diversity is due partly to the location of the country in the neotropics. Proximity to the equator is correlated with higher species diversity throughout the world, and you can’t get any closer to the equatorial line than in the aptly-named Ecuador! Yet latitude is not the only determining factor in biodiversity. Ecuador’s topography is important too as the Andes mountains and major ocean currents play a role in producing a wide range of ecological habitats in a reduced geographical space.
The eastern areas of Ecuador are under the influence of the very moisture-rich weather patterns generated over the vast Amazon rain forest which stretches all the way from the slopes of the eastern Andes to the Atlantic Ocean thousands of miles away.
From the northwest, oceanic clouds generated by the warm Panama current also bring lots of rain into continental territory. And the cold Humboldt current affects the Southern half of the country’s coast, creating tropical dry forest and desert conditions as you move closer to the border with Peru.
But when the Andes mountains come into play in the middle of the country, they act as rain barriers and shield the inter-mountain valleys around Quito from both western and eastern sources of moisture, thus creating very unique conditions - a sort of double rain shadow. You can easily spend a day driving around the areas relatively close to Quito and experience highland paramos where snow sometimes falls, extremely wet, misty cloud forests, and even cacti-studded deserts!
THE THREE MAIN BIOGEOGRAPHIC REGIONS
Famed German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt visited Ecuador at the turn of the 19th century and used his observations to develop his theory of altitudinal bands. The concept describes how, just as vegetation changes predictably with latitude, it also differs systematically with altitude. According to von Humboldt’s notes, a vertical ascent of just 600 meters in Ecuador is vegetationally equivalent to a 1,000 km trek north or south. This is because the effect of gravity weakens, air pressure drops, humidity decreases, and temperature falls as elevation above sea level increases.
As a result, at lower (e.g., generally hotter and wetter) elevations near the equator, tropical plant families dominate the landscape. As you climb in elevation and the environment becomes cooler and less humid, temperate zone plant families are better represented. In the rain forests of Ecuador, you’re going to see many of the same plant families that comprise tropical rain forests in other Latin American countries and even in the Old World tropics of Africa and Asia. As you climb toward the snow-covered Andes, you’ll see the landscape composed of plant families that are more common in Chile or the United States or Europe.
Traveling to the cloud forests of Mindo from Quito, or from Quito over the altiplano of the high Andes above the tree line then down to the steamy tropical Pacific coast, the vegetation quite literally changes right before your eyes. In fact, we can often hazard a pretty good guess at our current elevation simply by observing the types of trees and plants we see out the window while we’re driving around in Ecuador. Disconcertingly, some recent studies suggest that, with increasing temperatures related to climate change, many plants that von Humboldt saw on the mountain slopes have shifted their ranges upwards by over 200 meters in elevation.
In Ecuador, the variety of potential elevational habitats stretches all the way from the beach to the towering summit of the Chimborazo volcano at nearly 6,300 meters above sea level. Along with ocean currents, rain shadows, mountain valleys, and soil types, von Humboldt’s altitudinal gradients lend yet another layer of complexity to Ecuador’s biodiversity.
Though Ecuador’s astounding variety of habitats can be conceptualized at both macro and micro scale, some broad generalizations can be made. Transected by both the Equator and the impressive Andean mountain chain, and bordered by the Pacific Ocean on one side and the vast Amazonian rainforest on the other, mainland Ecuador can be divided into 3 well-defined biogeographic zones — coastal habitats, the highlands, and Amazon rain forest.
The coastal region contains beaches, bays, and small islands with mangroves and wet forests, creating very rich estuary habitats that are home to a great number of both land and marine species. Extensive agricultural export plantations (mainly bananas and chocolate) are found in this region, which together with fishing and consumer good imports, flow through the main port of Guayaquil. These activities represent the core of the economy for the area.
Ecuador’s coastal region grows dryer towards the south, with rather different ecosystems where low, mid and high elevation dry forests can be found. In fact, due to the cold Humboldt current, the coastal areas of southern Ecuador are near desert habitats. The inland Chocó rainforests of the northern coastal area, influenced by the warm Panama current, are among the most diverse in the world and also among the most threatened due to deforestation for African Palm Oil plantations. The northern reaches of this region near the border with Colombia are hard to control because of the influence of the international drug trade.
Moving eastward and farther inland, the highland region is characterized by valleys and plateaus flanked by avenues of snow-capped volcanoes. This region is home to precious paramos and glacier lakes in its higher reaches and misty cloud forests on the lower mountain slopes. The highland regions are where nearly half of the 17.5 million inhabitants of Ecuador live and where much of the fruit and vegetables that feed the country are grown on the rich volcanic soil of the Western Andes.
Descending over the towering Andes mountains to the east, the mountain landscape drops precipitously into extensive flatlands, irrigated by the numerous rivers that flow into the humid, lowland Amazon rainforest. The cloud forested slopes are shrouded in fog and are home to countless waterfalls. Agriculture and ranching combine with the oil industry in the lowlands to generate an important share of Ecuador’s gross domestic product. At the same time, these same activities are major threats to the remaining Amazon forest, its wildlife, and numerous indigenous populations.
While Ecuador possesses 26 officially differentiated habitat types, each one with a characteristic type of flora that is related to altitude and precipitation levels called Holdridge Life Zones, the three general regions we describe above include some of the world’s 10 “Biodiversity Hot Spots”, regions with an unusually high number of species per square kilometer. These are the humid lowland forests of the Northwest, the cloud forests of the western and eastern slopes of the Andes, and the Amazon rainforests of the eastern lowlands.
Ecuador is recognized globally for its vast plant species richness, which is threatened in many areas. Botanists estimate that Ecuador has more plant species per unit area than any other country in South America even though the country’s flora has not been fully described. There are almost certainly plant species in Ecuador today that will disappear before they have ever been described by scientists.
When we visit Ecuador, whether for our own photography or for our photo workshops with clients, we love to photograph in each of these general areas, though our favorites are the cloud forests of both the western and eastern slopes, the paramos of the highlands, and the Amazon rainforest region in the eastern lowlands. These three habitats are home to many of our favorite photo subjects and span the full range of our photographic interests from wildlife to birds to landscapes to macro!
CLOUD FOREST Cloud forests are basically higher elevation rain forests. These forests receive around half of their annual rainfall not from actual rain but rather from moisture capture as clouds move through the lush foliage and moisture drips from the canopy to the forest floor. The Andean cloud forests of Ecuador, both on the western and eastern slopes, hold a high diversity of flowering epiphytes that correlate to an astoundingly high species diversity of hummingbirds. Though the cloud forests of Ecuador contain other amazing birds (toucans, tanagers, etc.) as well as some great reptiles and amphibians, the hummingbirds are definitely the star of the show. And well they should be because the Ecuadorian Andes are likely to have been the cradle of their diverse speciation. Hummingbirds, found only in the Americas, began to develop from swifts over 40 million years ago. Fossil records suggest that the original evolution may have begun in Eurasia and that primitive “hummingbirds” later reached South America via a land bridge. As the Andes rose quickly about 10 million years ago, those ancestral “hummingbirds” diversified at a startling rate as new micro-climates developed in the area. Though the Andes cover only 7% of the land mass of the Americas they are home to 40% of the hummingbird species on Earth.
The hummingbirds we photograph today in Ecuador have crazy long tails, bill shapes adapted for feeding and for fighting, and outrageous colors . In one species, recent research shows that about 20% of the females adopt nearly perfect male coloration in an attempt to avoid the constant sexual overtures of males, which may hinder their ability to feed!
All of these adaptations are made possible due to the variety of habitats and altitudinal niches, diversity of flowers, competition for food sources, and to sexual selection. The upshot for photographers is that we can photograph a dizzying array of beautiful hummingbird species within just a few hours of the capital city.
The capital city of Quito lies at nearly 3,000 meters above sea level and is flanked by snow-capped volcanoes that range from 5,000 to 6,000 meters high. Driving out of the city puts you in the paramo, which are stunted forests and grasslands that are above the treeline. We love these areas because of the exhilarating crisp air and the feeling of being connected to the ancient history that shaped cultural evolution throughout the Andes mountain chain. The landscapes, of course, can be fantastic. In addition, these are great areas to find aquatic birds and raptors as well as the giant hummingbird, the sword-billed hummingbird, and even macro subjects. And don’t forget markets and cityscapes. Agricultural and architectural photos can add to any portfolio highlighting biodiversity, and Quito itself is a dynamic and photogenic city.
AMAZON RAIN FOREST
Descending over the eastern slopes of the Ecuadorian Andes, one begins to feel a connection with the vastness of the famed rain forests of Amazonia. There are numerous waterfalls and rushing whitewater rivers that nourish the headwaters of the mighty Amazon River. As we go lower in elevation, the fauna starts to look more tropical and once you start to sweat, you know you’re in the Amazon!
Monkeys call at dusk and dawn and a cacophony of bizarre bird calls drifts through the forest. The biggest highlight, however, is the system of black water canals that winds through the raiforest. The water is black from the tannins of rain forest leaves, which are full of chemical defensive compounds. Despite the high tannin content, there's amazing life all around and in the water, including giant river otters and the ancient hoatzin, a bird that represents a living link to the early birds that evolved from dinosaurs.
The still air, the complete lack of modern sonic contamination, and the knowledge that there are large reptiles such as caiman (an alligator relative) and anaconda in the black water canals below your canoe makes you feel as if you’ve stepped back in time.
As is clear from the photos above, we enjoy macro, landscape, and bird and wildlife photography in equal doses. The potential to take awesome photos in all of these genres of nature photography is precisely why we love Ecuador!
What it means for gear, however, is that you’ll need a full kit. Whenever we travel to Ecuador, we’ll take the following:
Full-frame camera body (for everything)
Crop sensor camera body (for backup and also for telephoto work)
Fast wide angle prime lens for nocturnal landscapes
Wide angle zoom for general landscapes
Dedicated macro lens
Telephoto zoom lens that reaches out to at least 500 mm
At least one flash
Flash transmitter or off-camera flash cord
Small softbox for flash
Polarizing and neutral density filters for wide angle zoom lens
For workshops we’ll also bring all of the gear necessary for our clients for multiple-flash for hummingbird setups. For our own special projects, we use a number of flashes for more complex wide angle setups and even remote setups.
With all of this gear and the amazing variety that Ecuador offers, you’ll also want to employ a diversity of photographic techniques. If you’re photographing a wide variety of subjects you need to learn a wide range of techniques.
We like to use slow shutter speeds with natural light and to combine blur with flash. Neutral density filters are a great way to add some dramatic movement for daytime landscape photos. Composing more loosely for environmental bird and wildlife portraits always adds interest to your portfolio. And exposing creatively for high-key and low key images is a way to broaden your photo skills and take some standout images.
ECUADOR PHOTOGRAPHY WORKSHOPS
On all of our workshops in Ecuador, we work with you every step of the way so that you can improve your core nature photography skills. But we want you to go even further, so we’re also right there with you to help you to incorporate flash and creative techniques into your nature photography.
Taking nature photos that stand out from the crowd also relies on natural history knowledge and the ability to see creatively in order to identify scenes or moments with the potential to produce images with impact. And yes, we’ll work on those skills with you as well 😀
We hope you’ll join us in the future on one of the Ecuador workshops that we offer through our company Foto Verde Tours! Click here to visit the Workshops page.