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Careers Café

Big Island, big conservation concerns

BY NICOLA KOPER | NOV 21 2011

While most of my blog posts are aimed at all early-career profs, this is a special one for the conservation biologists out there. How do we engage students in understanding significant conservation concerns in environments and habitats that they – and perhaps we – have never visited?

I’ve been working in conservation biology for about 13 years. The recent annual meeting of the Wildlife Society, on the Big Island, Hawai’i, brought home how much more I have to learn. Lectures, field trips, and exploring the Big Island introduced me to fascinating case studies about habitat conservation and effects of invasive species, and I can’t wait to integrate them in to my ecology and conservation lectures. But I am frustrated at myself, too, that I have been in this field so long and yet have been unaware of the extraordinary conservation issues faced by islands such as those of Hawai’i.

Take the Indian mongoose, for example. Mongooses were introduced to the Big Island in 1883 to control increasing populations of black rats. Unfortunately, mongooses are diurnal, while black rats are nocturnal. Not really a problem for the mongooses, who adapted readily to the supply of native birds and presumably the odd gecko. Oops.

It was also amazing to find that almost all of the birds found on the island are non-native. Many were introduced to Hawai’i intentionally, to “increase” the aesthetics of the islands, provide game for hunting, and sometimes to control pests. They compete with the native bird species and provide a reservoir for diseases such as avian pox and avian malaria, which are carried by – you guessed it – non-native mosquitoes. In combination, this has resulted in virtually all native songbirds being restricted to high elevations above the “mosquito line.”

There are abounding examples of conservation issues that can be used to engage students in learning about a variety of ecological theories. Fountain grass introduced as an ornamental. Cattle, sheep, pigs, goats and donkeys, which have destroyed forests across the island. Mesquite, introduced to feed the cattle. And if you want students to cheer up a bit after all that, you can talk about the recovery of the nene following near extinction.

So why haven’t I included these great examples in my courses to date? I guess I just didn’t know about them… they weren’t in my research area. And I didn’t learn about them during my own education … probably because they aren’t Canadian. I’ve always made an effort to include examples from other countries, a range of diverse taxa, and a range of habitat types in my lectures. But somehow it hasn’t been quite enough – I still missed out on these great teaching and learning opportunities.

Instructors and professors can increase the breadth of case studies they expose their students to in a number of ways. One is to complete a degree or postdoc outside of Canada… I know, it’s too late for me. Another is to attend conference presentations outside of your research interest to learn about ecological examples that might enhance your student’s learning experience … after all, not all of them are going to be interested in the breeding biology of Vermivora chrysoptera (although I can’t imagine why). A third is to refer to the wonderfully helpful and informative journal, Teaching Issues and Experiments in Ecology, or TIEE. This amazing resource was first published in 2004, and provides a wealth of examples, case studies, data sets, and figures for lectures.

So I guess I’m not the only one looking for help in broadening my teaching skills. Maybe it’s just not feasible for us to know and teach about conservation issues from all over the world without a little help.

ABOUT NICOLA KOPER
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