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Kathryn Van Artsdalen ’19.5 collects data during a dive near the Abaco Islands, the Bahamas, for her J-term course, Advanced Field Biology. Photo: Will Greene ’19

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Biology Field Course Explores the Health of Coral Reefs in the Bahamas

February 6, 2019

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – They’ve traded scuba tanks for sweaters as the reality of Vermont winter settles back in, but for 10 students and three faculty members on a J-term research trip, the Bahamas offered a brief respite from the snow and ice. The group was part of a winter term course called Advanced Field Biology, which focused on coral reef conservation and genetics in the waters surrounding the Abaco Islands.

Led by biology professors Jeremy Ward, Steve Trombulak, and Erin Eggleston, with collaboration from Dr. Craig Dahlgren of the Perry Institute for Marine Science, the class spent the first week of winter term in a Middlebury classroom, learning about reef biology and organisms, marine protected area considerations and rapid ecological assessments, reef microbiomes, and reef genetics and genomics.

“Before we left, we really worked on trying to get the big-picture view and then studying up on all the species we were going to see when we were on-site,” said Eggleston, an assistant professor who researches microbial ecology.

Once in the Bahamas, the class learned about the common set of research methodologies that are used across the Bahamas and the Caribbean Basin. During their multiple dives, they collected samples and data that were added to the Atlantic and Gulf Rapid Reef Assessment (AGRRA).

“There’s not a lot of data that’s been entered for Abaco Island,” said Eggleston. “So the data the students collected are going into this long-term data set for that region.” The information will be available to anyone interested in conservation science, effects of climate change, ocean acidification, and more, Eggleston said.

Having obtained all their necessary permits, the students and faculty worked with scientists from the Shedd Aquarium and SECORE, an international organization to protect coral reefs, to collect samples that they analyzed both on location and back in Middlebury. Eggleston and Ward will also use the samples for further study in their spring courses.

“This direct transfer of real-world experience and cutting-edge science straight to our labs and classes is an incredible opportunity for our student learning community,” said Ward, who teaches genetics at Middlebury.

Coral reefs have become a growing area of concern for scientists looking at the health of the world’s oceans.

“Corals are a hot spot of biodiversity,” said Eggleston. “There’s not a ton of coral in the oceans, but where they exist, they support huge amounts of life. If they collapse there’s a major repercussion for the fish and invertebrates that live there.” Eggleston said that the loss of coral reefs creates a cascading effect of loss, both in biodiversity and barrier protection to the islands they surround.

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Such intense field work requires a set of technical skills just to get started. Some of the students had previous dive experience, but several received training on-site and became certified before making their first dives.

“In a period of about an hour, they went from novice, newly approved divers, to science divers,” said Eggleston. “It’s a pretty big ask, and everybody rose to that challenge in an effective way.”

The value of hands-on learning was not lost on Luke Kikukawa ’19.5. “If you’re ever going to make a difference, you have to understand that life operates outside, and you have to get outside to understand how you can help it,” said the senior.

For more photos and videos from this J-term course, visit the class Instagram page, reefpanther.

The Advanced Field Biology course was made possible through the generosity of an anonymous donor as well as the collaborative efforts of Dr. Craig Dahlgren of the Perry Institute for Marine Science, Dr. Ross Cunning of the Shedd Aquarium, Dr. John Parkinson of SECORE, and Friends of the Environment.

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