Wildlands Studies: French Polynesia - Marine Ecosystems and Climate Change

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Join us on an extensive field study in southern Costa Rica this spring. We will travel into primary and secondary tropical forests in the Corcovado and Piedras Blancas National Parks, and out to the Pacific Ocean. Off the beaten path and immersed ... read more

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Join us on an extensive field study in southern Costa Rica this spring. We will travel into primary and secondary tropical forests in the Corcovado and Piedras Blancas National Parks, and out to the Pacific Ocean. Off the beaten path and immersed in wild nature, students will learn research methods for identifying botanical species and tracking protected wildlife - including jaguars, pumas, sea turtles, scarlet macaws, monkeys and the endangered Baird’s Tapir. We’ll venture deep among the coral reefs and mangrove ecosystems around the Golfo Dulce and Sierpe River, the largest tropical fjord and mangrove on the Central American Pacific, respectively, to sample natural resources and compare species health across wildland habitats. We invite students to trek deep into the tropical rainforests and coastal landscapes of Costa Rica, a small Central American country known as one of the most intensely biodiverse places on the planet. A leader around the world with 25% of its land preserved in National Parks and Reserves, Costa Rica contains 5% of the entire Earth’s biodiversity, including more than 6,000 plant species, 800 birds, and 500 butterflies. Flanked on both sides by parklands and surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, the southern zone of Costa Rica is an epicenter for biodiversity conservation, tropical ecology, and sustainable development. Here active researchers are making great strides to protect abundant plant and animal species while mitigating the impacts of climate change. Rich in its complex landscape history, Costa Rica is renowned as a global icon for conservation and plays an exemplary role as an eco-laboratory for trends in biodiversity preservation and sustainable development. Visiting coastal conservation areas, rural farms, eco-tourism destinations, fishing villages and local indigenous communities, students will gain firsthand experience into the complexities of conservation ecology, resource management, and regenerative agriculture practices in Costa Rica. Field research will support the existing efforts of local conservation organizations while exposing students to hands-on methods like natural resource sampling of water and soil, as well as species monitoring and evaluation of charismatic wildlife fauna. We’ll boat through river mangroves, snorkel in the gulf to monitor coral reforestation and marine biodiversity, support nesting sea turtle conservation, research the soil regeneration impacts of innovative cattle farming techniques, learn permaculture farming methods, evaluate the efforts of sustainable palm oil plantations, identify tropical plant species, track endangered species within the national parks, explore the contradictions of growth-based conservation and sustainable development models, and experience the traditional ways of life and ecosystem services of local indigenous communities. In the Southern Pacific, the territory of French Polynesia covers an area greater than that of the European Union, but only 0.1% of it consists of land. Due in part to its isolation, this vast expense of water is among the best preserved on the planet and attracts sea-loving tourists hoping to meet face to face with rays, turtles, sharks, dolphins and even humpback whales that come for breeding every July. Descending from skilled navigators who settled across the whole Pacific, Polynesian people inhabit these environmentally dynamic small volcanic islands or atolls and hold a deep connection to the ocean around them. These are a people profoundly linked to the adjacent coral reefs that provide food, revenue and shoreline protection. Despite the growing pressure of urbanization, tourism and overfishing, the coral reefs of French Polynesia have seemed to be resilient and robust. However, the acceleration of global warming will ultimately endanger the balance of these ecosystems. Immediate responses are necessary, requiring scientists, indigenous people, managers, and stakeholders to find ways to conserve the reefs' spectacular biodiversity and allow the sustainable use of French Polynesia’s local resources. As a team, we will investigate the picture-perfect islands of Tahiti and Moorea to study their rich tropical ecosystems and understand the long-term biological and physical trends induced by a now rapidly changing environment. With our primary focus on coral reefs, we will snorkel reefs and lagoons to examine how warmer seawater, ocean acidification, pollution, and rising sea levels alter the marine environment. We will also discover how local communities interact with the reef and the impact of local fisheries. With a marine focus established, we will turn our attention to connected land-based freshwater habitats and conservation concerns. Our team will explore streams where invertebrates live but have larvae that must migrate to the ocean to develop, threatened by artificialization and sediment extraction. We will wade through mangroves, an introduced species that may ultimately help the surrounding reef by acting as a buffer for runoff and nursery for particular reef fish. And finally, our team will monitor local forests near the apex of each island where interventions are needed to protect native fauna and flora from invasive species. Through interactions with various local activists, scientists, and stakeholders, we will examine the current movement to restore critical ecosystems and hope to assist in research and conservation efforts to ensure these ecosystems can adapt to the global changes in motion. Students will become skilled at identifying the organisms and features that characterize the wondrous landscape of French Polynesia and learn survey methods to assess different ecological states. Our team will also engage with the rich indigenous culture, under a significant revival, and discover the deep connection that exists between Polynesians and their environment. Our multi-disciplinary approach will allow students to learn key field research skills designed to support the environmental sustainability of the islands. Students will gain a deep understanding of marine ecosystems, climate change and approaches to solving complex, social-ecological challenges. This program provides a rare opportunity to study coral reef ecosystems that have defied the odds of a threatened climate and learn about what challenges are likely to occur first.

Program Type(s):
Study Abroad
Program Length(s):
  • Summer
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