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WATCH: University Honors Trip Launches 'Citizen Science' Project to Preserve a Paradise

University of Cincinnati students spend winter break exploring the wonders of a natural laboratory as well as investigating how to protect it from the growing demands of tourism and industry.

Date: 3/5/2010 12:00:00 AM
By: Dawn Fuller
Phone: (513) 556-1823
Photos By: Photos and Video from University Honors Program

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  • They encountered a giant tortoise weighing hundreds of pounds – certainly not the typical box turtle that one might come across along a winding road in Cincinnati.
  • Standing on a beach, a large, bull sea lion stopped and posed for their cameras as if he was on the red carpet in Hollywood. He even gave them an over-the-shoulder head-tilt.
  • As they explored the Pacific Ocean, a playful baby sea lion mirrored their every move.

No, this was not a chilly winter break near the University of Cincinnati. But for 14 students in the University Honors Program for academically talented students, it was an amazing exploration of a natural laboratory that reinforced a passion about how to preserve it.

View a slide show of the trip.

The UC students traveled to the Galapagos Islands after exploring the history, geology, biodiversity and environmental challenges affecting the Galapagos. Those challenges lie in a struggle to balance the demands of the tourism and fishing industry with preserving the survival of organisms affected by hunting and the invasion of introduced species. The UC explorers spent fall quarter studying the issues surrounding the Galapagos as part of their honors course, preceding the study abroad experience over winter break.

The winter break trip – led by Ken Petren, UC associate professor of biology, and Eric Maurer, director of the UC Center for Environmental Studies and field service assistant professor of biology – was the launch of a new “Citizen Science” effort introduced by the University Honors students to monitor and encourage educational efforts around preserving the islands, as well as invite reporting about ongoing deterioration and preservation efforts. Students worked with tour guides and conservation officers to develop ideas on how to survey the residents and tourists of Galapagos.

Galapagos Islands

You can look ahead to spring here in Cincinnati to compare on a very small scale the challenges of nature that affect the islands on a dangerously grand scale. Think of that honeysuckle bush that’s growing out of control in your own back yard and how it seems to come back stronger every year. That plant is not a native species to the Cincinnati region, but it sure does flourish – out of control. Now, think of how introduced species can overrun an island and crowd out what is naturally living there.

“Most of the people live in a small town, nestled into one quarter of the islands and they’re serving all of these tourists that come through,” Petren adds. “There’s a growing issue surrounding pollution because of the high tourist traffic. There’s tension among the fishing industry because of the growing demand for the sea cucumber, shark fin and lobster, which is all but decimating these natural populations,” Petren says.

Citizen Science – gaining the support and participation of general citizens in science research – is a trend that’s gaining momentum in scientific research. “Citizen Science engages and informs the public, and even though the data are of varying quality, there is the potential to collect a lot of it over vast areas and across many years,” Petren says.

The primary goal of the University Honors trip was to explore whether the tens of thousands of tourists who visit the Galapagos Islands, as well as the hundreds of tour guides who assist them, could help gather basic data on species as well as observations of habitat, over a period of time. The group is at work on a Web site to further support the effort.

One group of University Honors students focused their project on the sea cucumber population in the Galapagos. The sea cucumber is a marine animal in the echinoderm family – a group of invertebrates that include star fish and sea urchins.

The sea cucumber is also considered a high-demand delicacy in some Asian markets, leading to overharvesting in the Galapagos by the fishing industry. “You start to see the detrimental effects when something is taken out of an environment, when the balance is knocked off as humans start their meddling,” says Bryan Porzio, a 22-year-old student who took part in the trip.

Galapagos Islands

Porzio, a fifth-year chemical engineering major from Batavia, Ill., and two University Honors business majors developed the Citizen Science project to focus on tourist areas, where fishing is prohibited. Porzio also assisted with another honors project exploring biosecurity – how to control invasive species introduced to the islands that are growing out of control, such as fire ants. Porzio assisted translations between the English-speaking UC student researchers and a Spanish-speaking biosecurity coordinator for the Charles Darwin Research Station in Galapagos.

This was Porzio’s first UC study abroad trip, and he says it was an event that transformed his student experience. “Our daily life in the United States involves getting up, eating, doing our work, and going home. In the Galapagos, you see a poverty situation that, to the locals, their financial situation is more important than the ecosystem. When you’re driving down the road, you’re not watching out for potholes, you have to look out for Iguanas.”

“You witness the idea of what a perfect habitat is,” Porzio says. “It’s a natural habitat for the evolution of all of these forms, and it needs to be preserved. It’s a different world.”

Janelle Wichman, a 20-year-old finance major from Burlington, Ky., was among a University  Honors student group that was exploring the history of the residents of Galapagos. They found families who had lived on the islands for generations, as well as an influx of immigrants from Ecuador seeking job opportunities in the tourism and hospitality industry.

Wichman says it was amazing exploring a pristine, uninhabited part of the world. “I took a biology course my freshman year that involved a visit to the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, but in the islands, we could be standing one foot away from an exotic bird,” she says. “We went snorkeling almost every day and got to play with sea lions and dolphins.

“I also formed incredible bonds with my classmates on this trip. It truly was an amazing experience,” she says.

Galapagos Islands

The tour of the Galapagos was part of UC’s year-long celebration of the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s work in evolutionary biology, “On the Origin of Species,” and its role in the development of modern science.

The cost of the trip per student was $6,000. However, with grant support from the University Honors Program, UC International Programs and Darwin Sesquicentennial funding, students were able to reduce their individual costs to about $3,000.

“The University Honors program offers UC students enriching experiences. The Galapagos trip is a perfect example,” says Provost Anthony J. Perzigian. “Besides studying contemporary environmental issues and collecting data, our students literally followed in the footsteps of Charles Darwin, who also collected important data while visiting the Galapagos Islands.” 

The University Honors Program is comprised of the top five percent of UC’s undergraduate students. University Honors focuses on unique and challenging academic and hands-on experiences that reflect community engagement, global study, leadership, research and the creative arts.

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