Ecuador | Study Abroad | Tropical Ecology | Conservation | Sustainability

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Ecuador: Comparative Ecology and Conservation

Ecuador: Comparative Ecology and Conservation

Explore tropical ecosystems, conduct biological fieldwork, and study conservation efforts in Ecuador, one of the world's most biodiverse countries.

This program studies biological and ecological sciences applicable to conservation efforts, using key biological and ecological indicators such as plants, insects, birds, mammals, and other biological taxa. The program looks at the botany, entomology, ornithology, mammalogy, geology, and natural history of Ecuador’s unique ecological zones. You will visit the high sierras of the Andes, the epiphyte-rich cloud forest, the high Andean páramo, and the vast rainforest of the Ecuadorian Amazon, and you will spend a week on the Galápagos Islands.

Major topics of study include:

  • Ecology/biology of Ecuador’s four distinct ecological regions: the Andes, the coast, the Amazon, and the Galápagos Islands
  • Major plant and animal biological indicators, ecological adaptations, and population studies
  • Forestry and field techniques such as quadrants and transects, water and soil analysis, research analysis, and bio-statistics
  • Local natural resource use
  • Ecuador’s current environmental challenges

Watch Wofford College student Alex Bentley’s film of his excursion to the Galápagos Islands, where students spend a week on SIT’s Ecuador: Comparative Ecology and Conservation program. Get inspired by the incredible hands-on learning Alex experienced. In his words, “You hear all about the Galápagos and Darwin in bio class, but the pure magnificence of these isolated islands transcends their history. The islands and surrounding waters are full of amazing creatures and breathtaking scenery.”

fieldworkOne of the most biologically diverse countries on the planet, Ecuador provides an ideal setting for learning about tropical biology and ecology in a comparative context. Within this small country's borders, the Amazon Basin, the Andes, the Pacific Ocean, and the Galápagos Islands provide unique climatic niches that harbor ecological treasures and a plethora of endemic flora and fauna. Ecuador is home to two biological hotspots — the tropical Andes and the Chocó — known for their mega-diversity and rapid loss of habitat. Given the overwhelming ecological importance of Ecuador’s biota and the severe threats they face, SIT's Comparative Ecology and Conservation program makes it possible for you to learn firsthand about tropical ecosystems and simultaneously become immersed in the global, national, and local impacts of resource use in the tropics.

A focus on science and field research

This is a field-based program emphasizing the biological and ecological sciences applicable to natural resource management and conservation in Ecuador; therefore, in addition to class lectures and coursework, you will engage in scientific fieldwork in a variety of locations, including the Amazon Tropical Rain Forest, the Cloud Forest, high altitude páramo, and the Galápagos Islands. You will find yourself conducting studies of plants and insects, sampling soil, doing species counts, mist-netting, bird-watching and so on. This will require being in the field for long lengths of time (where you will be wet, hot or cold, up to your knees in mud, and in close contact with insects and animals). Often, the field research is conducted in the very early morning or late at night, depending on the activity. Please be aware that all sustainability, socio-economic, and policy aspects of conservation are examined from a scientific perspective (e.g., How can science contribute to conservation efforts in Ecuador?). This program will let you live like a biologist as you answer questions the program raises.


You will be based in Quito, where you will live with a host family, attend classes, conduct fieldwork, and embark on excursions. You will receive lectures from local professionals in the fields of botany, forestry, entomology, ornithology, ecology, and natural history. Majestic mountains surround Quito, where Quiteños say they are living in "la cara de Dios," the face of God. UNESCO named Quito's elegant colonial center a world cultural heritage site in 1978.

Spanish language class and city excursions

traditional danceYou will practice and enhance your skills in Spanish, with a natural history and environmental emphasis, that you learn in the classroom and during educational excursions to various locations in and around Quito. Field exercises in the city typically include relevant historical sites and the Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World), i.e., the equatorial line. Experienced teaching staff and homestays combine to maximize your language learning opportunities.

Independent Study Project

You will spend the last four weeks of the program focused on an Independent Study Project (ISP), pursuing original research on a selected topic of interest to you. The ISP can be conducted throughout Ecuador based upon requests from local activists, NGOs, and communities. You should plan on completing an ISP that is rooted in the biological, ecological, and/or environmental sciences.    

Sample topic areas for the ISP include:

  • Biodiversity studies and population assessments
  • Use of biological/ecological indicators for environmental studies
  • Flora or fauna monitoring for conservation purposes
  • Geology related to ecology and conservation
  • Endangered species
  • Protected area management
  • Mining or petroleum industry environmental implications and alternatives
  • Traditional and organic agriculture
  • Endemism


Previous college-level coursework and/or significant preparation in environmental studies, ecology, biology, or related fields, as assessed by SIT. Four recent semesters of college-level Spanish or equivalent and the ability to follow coursework in Spanish, as assessed by SIT.

Access virtual library guide.

Browse this program’s Independent Study Projects / undergraduate research.

Through this ecology program, students learn about the diverse ecological zones of Ecuador, major plant and animal adaptations to life in each zone, local use of natural resources, and current environmental and conservation issues. Students are also introduced to a panorama of Ecuadorian life and culture. During the Environmental Research Methods and Ethics course, students practice and apply ecological and biological field techniques and learn how to integrate these into their own research during the Independent Study Project (ISP). Throughout the program, students improve and apply their Spanish skills to broaden their understanding of Ecuadorian ecology and conservation and to gain a deeper understanding of the country.

The following syllabi are either from a recent session of this program or for an upcoming session. Because courses develop and change over time to take advantage of dynamic learning opportunities, actual course content will vary from term to term.

The syllabi can be useful for students, faculty, and study abroad offices in assessing credit transfer. Read more about credit transfer.

Conservation and Sustainability Practices in Ecuador – syllabus
(ENVI3000 / 3 credits / 45 class hours)
This course focuses on the analysis of major science-related environmental issues that currently threaten Ecuadorian ecosystems. It provides a multifaceted and interdisciplinary exploration of Ecuadorian conservation and sustainability issues. The course examines contemporary conservation science strategies that have been implemented in order to protect the country's natural resources and discusses their effectiveness and viability. Through the exploration of Ecuadorian conservation and sustainability issues, the course enables students to build an individual framework that facilitates their conceptualization of contemporary environmental issues related to conservation and, as a result, the impact on local resources. The course is conducted mainly in Spanish and encompasses fieldwork activities applying robust science research methods.
Comparative Tropical Ecology – syllabus
(ENVI3005 / 3 credits / 45 class hours)
Through a comparative approach, students explore the ecology of each of Ecuador's four distinct ecological regions: the Andes, the coast, the Amazon, and the Galápagos Islands. In each area, students analyze major plant and animal adaptations, the uses of natural resources, and current environmental issues. During field trips, students apply biological and ecological techniques such as quadrants and transects, engage in biological monitoring for plants and animals, and learn to conduct population studies, water and soils analysis, and other techniques. As part of the course, students visit several sites, including Galápagos National Park, Santa Lucia Cloud Forest Reserve, Yunguilla Community, and La Hesperia Reserve. Coursework is conducted in Spanish with occasional lectures in English.
Spanish for the Natural Sciences I – syllabus
(SPAN2000 / 3 credits / 45 class hours)
Spanish for the Natural Sciences II – syllabus
(SPAN2500 / 3 credits / 45 class hours)
Spanish for the Natural Sciences III – syllabus
(SPAN3000 / 3 credits / 45 class hours)
Spanish for the Natural Sciences IV – syllabus
(SPAN3500 / 3 credits / 45 class hours)
In this course, students hone their speaking, reading, and writing skills through classroom and field instruction. They practice reading professional scientific literature as they learn the formal terms and local expressions needed to discuss environmental and conservation issues, to conduct field research, and to interact in institutional and community settings related to the program themes. Students are placed in small classes based on an in-country evaluation that tests both written and oral proficiency.
Environmental Research Methods and Ethics – syllabus
(ENVI3500 / 3 credits / 45 class hours)
In this research methods course designed to prepare students for the Independent Study Project, students learn how to organize and conduct a research project. Through lectures, readings, and field activities, students analyze and practice a range of methods appropriate for ecological research including quadrants and transects; biotic sampling; fauna and flora identification; animal behavior; and soil, water, and climate investigation. Students also examine the ethical issues surrounding field research related to ecology and are guided through the World Learning / SIT Human Subjects Review process, which forms a core component of the course. By the end of the course, students will have chosen a research topic, selected appropriate methods, and written a solid proposal for an Independent Study Project related to the program's focus on ecology. All coursework is conducted in Spanish.
Independent Study Project – syllabus
(ISPR3000 / 4 credits / 120 class hours)
Conducted in approved locations around Ecuador, the Independent Study Project offers students the opportunity to conduct field research on a topic of their choice within the program's thematic parameters. The project integrates learning from the various components of the program and culminates in a final presentation and formal research paper. While the ISP can include social science concepts, the main focus should be biological, ecological, and/or environmental, based upon requests from local NGOs, nature reserves, and local communities. Sample topic areas: flora or fauna monitoring for conservation purposes; biodiversity studies and population assessments; environmentally friendly agriculture; soil or water studies; geology related to ecology and conservation; community conservation projects; protected area management; impact of development on local communities.

Please note that in order to take advantage of dynamic learning opportunities, program excursions may occasionally vary.

on a boatThree weeklong field excursions interspersed throughout the semester introduce you to the varied and unique ecosystems of Ecuador. You will experience multi-day trips to farms, highland forests, and grassland sites near Quito, as well as Andean cloud forest, Amazonian rainforest, and Galápagos Island ecosystems, so you can understand and identify life forms and their adaptations in a comparative context. Besides familiarizing yourself with ecological processes in each ecosystem, you will conduct taxon-specific investigations. Finally, you will observe the human impacts on each ecosystem and study different strategies for conservation.

Cloud Forest

Yunguilla Community (Upper Cloud Forest)
After orientation week, you will visit a rural community in order to interact with local community members and learn about Ecuador’s rural life; this includes participating in activities such as organic farming, harvesting, processing local products, and cattle ranching. The visit to Yunguilla Community includes living with an Ecuadorian campesino family during three days and nights. 

Santa Lucia Cloud Forest Reserve (Lower Cloud Forest)
After the rural homestay in Yunguilla, you experience a five-day excursion in a cloud forest reserve in one of the world's top-ten biodiversity hotspots, the diverse and highly threatened Chocó region of northwestern Ecuador. The visit is devoted to studying the cloud forest ecosystem, principally through ecology field methods and guided hikes in the forest. You will receive an introduction to botanical identification, practice setting up quadrants and transects to survey vegetation based on DBH, gain hands-on experience mist-netting birds under the guidance of an experienced ornithologist, and learn other field techniques. You will also gain insight into local environmental movements and grassroots conservation.

Ecuadorian AmazonTiti Monkey

Limoncocha Lake and Petroleum Areas
The first three days in the region are devoted to the study of the major human impacts on the natural resource base, including petroleum exploitation and African palm oil plantations. You will visit Limoncocha, one of the most spectacular Amazon lakes and Amazonian wetland systems, where rare fauna — such as the black caiman, the largest crocodilian in the Amazon basin — live.

Tiputini Biological Station (TBS)
From Limoncocha, you will spend the next five days studying at the Tiputini Biological Station (TBS) in the famous Yasuní National Park, one of the most biodiverse sites on Earth. At TBS, in the remote Ecuadorian Amazon, the teaching is focused on rain forest ecology in which you will learn about ecological characteristics of Amazonia and expand your repertoire of ecological field methods. Specifically, you will hone botanical and bird identification techniques, monitor primate density, practice measuring forest density and tree height, and receive field applications of pollination biology and soil testing. You will also receive lectures from guest faculty and other researchers working at the station and go on hikes with local indigenous guides. This site provides a unique opportunity to reach deeply into the Amazon beyond the encroachments of tourism and petroleum development.

Páramo Highlands

The program includes a three-day visit to the Andean páramo highlands at Antisana Reserve and/or other high altitude reserves. The páramo is a tundra-like ecosystem unique to the neotropics. You will visit the páramo to learn about its rare ecology and conservation strategies for coping with human impacts and climate change and protecting endangered species such as the spectacular Andean condor, the largest flying bird on Earth.

Galápagos Islands

boobyYou will have the opportunity to see Darwin's wonderland during their weeklong excursion to the Galápagos Islands. Half of the week is spent aboard a boat where a Spanish-speaking naturalist instructs students on the identification and natural history of unique and often endemic plants, birds, reptiles, and mammal species. You will observe island geological formations and learn about evolutionary processes. Much of your time on the boat is devoted to studying the marine habitat through snorkeling, instruction, and firsthand observation. The other half of the week is spent in a homestay on the island of Isabela in Puerto Villamil, which will give you a unique understanding of the local residents and their relationship with the Galápagos National Park and its ecosystems.

XavierXavier Silva, PhD, Academic Director

Dr. Xavier Silva, an Ecuadorian, received his PhD in entomology applied to ecology from the Pierre et Marie Curie University in Paris, France. He earned his master’s degree and BS at the same university focusing on ecology and biology, including population ecology, biogeography, and other environmental sciences applied to tropical ecosystems. Dr. Silva has worked extensively in applying his scientific knowledge to the conservation of natural resources in Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as in several countries in Africa and Asia. For several years, Dr. Silva was the director of biodiversity conservation for The Nature Conservancy’s Latin America and the Caribbean program based in Washington, DC. Dr. Silva was later the director of NatureServe’s Latin America and Caribbean program. Dr. Silva has also taught at the San Francisco University of Quito. Among his several publications, Dr. Silva has written several books, including Butterflies of Ecuador and Ecuador’s Butterfly Ecology, which was awarded Best Biological Publication of Ecuador in 2012. Currently, Dr. Silva is president of the Entomological Society of Ecuador and is a member of the Entomological Society of France and the Ornithological Society of Ecuador.

View Dr. Silva's full CV.

Leonore Cavallero, Intercultural Specialist

Lenore CavalleroLeonore Cavallero has an MA in multicultural education / bilingual counseling from the University of San Francisco, California. She has worked with SIT since 1993, as an academic director of the Ecuador: Culture and Development program and, for one semester, SIT’s Cape Town, South Africa, program. Her professional experience in Ecuador includes eight years working for the Peace Corps Training Center as family coordinator, master trainer, and interim training center director. Prior to the Peace Corps, she worked for two years as a guidance counselor for Ecuadorian high school students. Leonore regularly presents sessions on intercultural/interpersonal relationships and safety issues to international education and volunteer organizations based in Ecuador. She wrote Surviving Re-entry: A Readjustment Manual for Parents, a handbook for parents of students returning home from studying abroad, as well as a safety manual for students. In her role as intercultural specialist, Leonore serves both programs in Ecuador, using her expertise to provide support and assistance to students and staff. She has lived in Ecuador since 1981 and raised her two children in a bilingual environment. She has Ecuadorian residency and dual nationality in the US and Italy.

Review Leonore Cavallero's full CV.

Javier Robayo, Academic Assistant

Javier Robayo is one of the leading Ecuadorian biologists applying ecological sciences for conservation purposes in the country. He holds a BS in biology from Universidad San Francisco de Quito, and he is currently finishing an MS in psychology from the Instituto Humanista de Psicoterapia Gestalt of Monterrey, Mexico. Javier Robayo has been working in a variety of science and conservation programs in Ecuador, including the establishment of 15 of the most important private reserves in the country, located in different ecosystems and regions, such as the endangered Pacific Coast dry forests, eastern and western cloud forests, Andean páramo highlands, and the Amazon rainforest. He has also participated in several conservation projects in the Galápagos Islands. In order to establish sustainable and ongoing conservation activities, Javier Robayo has been working extensively with local communities, involving them in the management of different reserves; this approach has proved to be very fruitful. During the last 14 years, he has been working with the most prestigious national and international conservation nongovernmental organizations. Javier Robayo also has several years of experience teaching conservation biology and botany of Ecuador in the field for international groups at different institutions, such as the Universidad San Francisco de Quito and several US-based universities.

Lecturers for this program typically include:

Tatiana Santander, MSc

Tatiana Santander is an Ecuadorian biologist holding an MS in natural protected areas from the Universidad Autónoma, Madrid, Spain, and a BS in biology from the Universidad Católica of Ecuador. She currently works for one of the leading conservation nongovernmental organizations in Ecuador, Aves y Conservación, which focuses on the protection of birds and their habitats. Her conservation science and research projects have taken her to different regions and ecosystems in Ecuador, and one of her main research activities was an in-depth study on the biology and conservation of the Nazca booby in the Galápagos Islands. Tatiana Santander has also led several expeditions to discover and monitor endangered bird species in Ecuador. In order to promote sustainable conservation activities, she works closely with local communities, developing participatory, educational, and technical training programs. Tatiana Santander has been involved with the Ecuador: Comparative Ecology and Conservation program as a lecturer and a field science resource in the main excursions, such as the cloud forest, Andean páramo highlands, Amazon forest, and the Galápagos. 

Diego Quiroga, PhD

Diego Quiroga holds a PhD in anthropology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is currently vice president of external and student affairs at Universidad San Francisco de Quito and co-director of the Galápagos Academic Institute for the Arts and the Sciences (GAIAS). Dr. Quiroga serves as a lecturer and a member of the local review board for the Ecuador: Comparative Ecology and Conservation program. His area of expertise is sociocultural anthropology, and his topical interests include medical anthropology, environmental anthropology, and indigenous and Afro-American cultures of Latin America. He has also served as dean of the graduate school, dean of academic affairs, dean of social sciences, and full-time professor at Universidad San Francisco de Quito; he has taught courses in history, Andean anthropology, and medical anthropology. He has conducted extensive research in Ecuador, and his work has been published in many prestigious academic journals. Amazon Basin Productive Systems and Health in Communities Living in the Upper Amazon BasinEcuador, and Magic and Healing: The Role of the Devil and the Saints in MuisneEcuador, constitute some of his major contributions to the field.


You will live for approximately eight weeks with a homestay family in Quito. Host families are carefully screened and selected and, when possible, matched to students with similar interests. Host families are diverse in socioeconomic status, occupation, number of family members, and location in or around the city.

You will also experience two shorter homestays, which take place during educational excursions. The first is with a family in a rural cloud forest and the second is on Isabela Island, the largest island of the Galápagos, typically in the small rural fishing town of Puerto Villamil.

Other accommodations during the program may include hostels, field camps, reserve lodges, and boats.

A diversity of students representing different colleges, universities, and majors study abroad on this program. Many of them have gone on to do amazing things that connect back to their experience abroad with SIT. Learn what some of them are now doing.

Recent positions held by alumni of this program include:

  • Researcher working on ornithological projects, Jocotoco Foundation, Ecuador
  • Forestry / Carbon Sequestration Manager / Advisor, La Hesperia Reserve, Ecuador’s Western Cloud Forest

Program Dates: Fall 2016

Program Arrival Date:  Aug 28, 2016

Program Departure Date:    Dec 10, 2016

The dates listed above are subject to change. Please note that travel to and from the program site may span a period of more than one day.

Student applications to this program will be reviewed on a rolling basis between the opening date and the deadline.

Application Deadline:   May 15, 2016


SIT Pell Grant Match Award. SIT Study Abroad provides matching grants to all students receiving Federal Pell Grant funding; this award can be applied to any SIT semester program. View all SIT Study Abroad scholarships.

Tuition: $16,180

The tuition fee covers the following program components:

  • Cost of all lecturers who provide instruction to students in:
    • Ecuadorian life and culture
    • Comparative ecology
    • Conservation and policy
  • Environmental Research Methods and Ethics seminar on research methods and Human Subjects Review
  • Intensive language instruction in Spanish
  • All educational excursions to locations such as the Ecuadorian Amazon, a cloud forest reserve, páramo and highland Andes, and the Galápagos Islands, including all related travel costs
  • Independent Study Project (including a stipend for accommodation and food) 
  • Health insurance throughout the entire program period

Room & Board: $2,670

The room and board fee covers the following program components:

  • All accommodations during the entire program period. This includes during orientation, time in the program base (Quito), on all excursions, during the Independent Study Project, and during the final evaluation period. Accommodation is covered either by SIT Study Abroad directly, through a stipend provided to each student, or through the homestay. 
  • All homestays (eight weeks in Quito, three- to four-day rural cloud forest homestay, and three- to four-day rural homestay in the Galápagos)  
  • All meals for the entire program period. Meals are covered either by SIT Study Abroad directly, through a stipend, or through the homestay.

Estimated Additional Costs:

International Airfare to Program Launch Site

International airline pricing can vary greatly due to the volatility of airline industry pricing, flight availability, and specific flexibility/restrictions on the type of ticket purchased. Students may choose to take advantage of frequent flyer or other airline awards available to them, which could significantly lower their travel costs.

Visa Expenses: $ 450

Immunizations: Varies

Books & Supplies: $ 70

International Phone: Each student must have a phone in each country. Cost varies according to personal preferences, phone plans, data plans, etc.

Discretionary Expenses

Personal expenses during the program vary based on individual spending habits and budgets. While all meals and accommodations are covered in the room and board fee, incidentals and personal transportation costs differ depending on the non-program-related interests and pursuits of each student. To learn more about personal budgeting, we recommend speaking with alumni who participated in a program in your region. See a full list of our alumni contacts. Please note that free time to pursue non-program-related activities is limited.

Please Note: Fees and additional expenses are based on all known circumstances at the time of calculation. Due to the unique nature of our programs and the economics of host countries, SIT reserves the right to change its fees or additional expenses without notice.


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