Madelyn In TCI: Hunting Lionfish

October 23, 2019

Today was a rather busy day for me but it’s difficult to complain when I enjoy everything that I’m doing! In the morning I went with my professor to help clean up Sargassum from one of the beaches on South Caicos. We drove in Big Red to a spot near the other side of the island; it was a beautiful drive! All of the rain in the past weeks has transformed the entire island, bringing up lush grasses and turning the leaves a vibrant green. Compared to the brown, straggly shrubbery that dominated the island when we first arrived, the island seemed to me nearly a rain forest (with just as many mosquitoes). Unfortunately, the dirt road to our destination was flooded for a significant portion, so we had to turn around and hope to try again the following week.

Flooded Road

When we got back to the research center, I went to elementary school for community outreach. Today I was in the kindergarten classroom and showed them about Australian animals; I found the best way to occupy the young children’s attention is by showing them pictures of animals and acting them out. I might actually be getting the hang of how to interact with kids! 

Hanging with Kids

After lunch, I had a lionfish hunting dive. Lionfish are a terribly successful invasive species. They’re very beautiful looking and were traded as exotic aquarium fish. They first appeared in the ocean off the coast of Florida in 1985, and since then have spread all throughout the Caribbean Sea and up the east coast of the U.S. Their venomous spines protect them from any potential natural predators, and they eat an absurd amount of all fish species, decimating local populations. Lionfish have a very fascinating method of hunting: they fan out their fins and spines to corral their prey into a corner, then unhinge their jaw and quickly suction their prey into their mouths.

Lionfish

For our dive, I laid out a 100 meter transect while the rest of the group followed slightly behind me and looked around the rocks and in crevices for lionfish. Although it took a little while, one of our group members finally spotted a small lionfish and pointed it out to our professor, who had a spear. The lionfish’s invulnerability was rather evident in its behavior; it hovered in front of a rock, seemingly unperturbed by the approach of a human. The spear went right through the lionfish and crunched on the rocks behind it, a very abrupt sound underwater. As the lionfish was put into the bin carried by our waterfront assistant, we recorded the time, depth, habitat, and other useful information about the capture.

When we got back to the research center, we dissected the lionfish. First, we had to cut off all the spines to avoid getting pricked; they’re still dangerous after death. Our professor dug through the fat and found the stomach, which had 2 fish inside of it; one of them was missing its head. Both fish were surprisingly large in comparison to the size of the lionfish. Once we had collected all of the necessary information, we added it to a large spreadsheet with all of the information about lionfish captures in the area. Since the lionfish have no natural predators and are very destructive to the ecosystem, there has been a lot of research and effort to control their numbers and spread. That’s one of the projects that School for Field Studies in South Caicos is working on. The staff go out every Sunday for these lionfish hunts, which appear to be fairly successful when done this often. It was very interesting to help out with the project, although I honestly felt a little bit morally unsound with taking part in killing another creature. It’s an odd dilemma: on one hand, the lionfish are extremely harmful to the environment and the other organisms that live there. On the other hand, a lionfish is still a living creature that is just very well-adapted and was born in the wrong place. I suppose this is a common dilemma when dealing with invasive species, and I’ll just have to figure out how to excuse it. So much for science always being black and white!


Brooke Goes Global: My final stop, Brazil!

November 27, 2018

Here I am, in São Paulo, Brazil.  The last country of our trip.  The final destination.  The official end to our program.  Yet, there is still so much to do, so much to learn, and so much to experience.  

Our group recently arrived back from our rural stay at a Quilombo and an Agroforest.  Quilombos are communities originally formed by escaped slaves.  These brave individuals ran from enslavement and found refuge in the mountains of Brazil.  In time, their practices of agriculture have been passed down from generation to generation.  Today, the Quilombo of Ribeirão Grande in Terra Seca fights for its right to stay.  The area they are cultivating is a protected area of the forest; there is to be no interference by humans at all.  But the people of the Quilombo have been living on this land for more than 200 years.  And they have farmed this land for just as long.  In the last 10 years, they had to prove their culture and their history to the government, so that they could remain in their homes.  This community is incredibly strong and courageous to fight a powerful force, the Brazilian government, and stand up for what is rightfully theirs.  

Visiting the Quilombo was fascinating.  We saw how their farming techniques did not interrupt the flow of the natural plants and forest.  Instead, they complimented each other as crops and trees simultaneously grew side by side.  We walked through the Atlantic Rainforest as the owner of the land showed us her medicinal plants she uses for stomach aches, stress, and headaches.  She pointed to a fruit tree and picked a small peach off its branches for each person in our group.  The cultivating and farming of the Quilombo does not disrupt the natural flow of nature.  It sustains the community’s life while simultaneously complimenting nature.  

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This was the wonderful meal the people of the Quilombo made for us.  They have this amazing business endeavor that involves selling their crops in the city and, in exchange, they have their customers come visit their home in the mountains, so they can see where their food is coming from.

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The stream that cuts through their property is a source of recreation and fun for the children of the community.

Next we traveled to the Agroforest of Felipe Moreira.  We jumped off the bus and grabbed our overnight bags.  We continued down a rocky path where our host traveled to us via zipline.  Us students, however, traveled in a much less exhilarating form — by boat, nonetheless still enjoyable.  We all hopped into the boat and crossed the river that would bring us to the place we would call home for the next few days.  

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A maximum of eight people could fit on the boat, so it took a few trips for all 30 of us to make it to our destination.

Over the next few days, we toured hundreds of acres of the Atlantic Rainforest which just happened to have some crops growing it in as well.  Around 20 years ago, the land of thick trees and heavy foliage was nothing more than grassland.  This particular part of the rainforest had been cut down and destroyed for the grazing of Asian Buffalo.  Nonetheless, in just a couple years, this family was able to completely change the outcome of this part of the forest — with the help of agroforestry.  Agroforestry is the combination of agriculture while also preserving the natural trees and plants that already exist in the area.  With a little help from the humans, and a lot of resilience, this particular part of the Atlantic Rainforest was able to bounce back.  

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Our second day of the trip, we were taken to the top of their property where we could take in the beautiful scenery of the nearby mountains.

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A few steps from the rooms we all stayed in was this beautiful pool that overlooked their property.

 

I was in a small group of students that chose to go deep into the trees to discover all that nature was willing to share.  I was full of nothing less than excitement to hear of the farmer’s agroforestry techniques that sustain his, his families’, and nature’s life.  Agroforestry demands that a diverse set of crops be spread out throughout a large space of land.  This is in contrast to mass factory farming that cultivates one type of plant over acres of land.  The diversity of plants in the forest keeps the soil fertile.  Additionally, when trees and plants need to be cut down to allow sunlight to shine through or room is needed for the cultivation of new plants, the cut plants are left on the forest floor.  This keeps the moisture in the soil so that the crops do not have to be watered.  This particular technique also acts as a natural pesticide.  Bugs lay their eggs in the dead plants on the ground because it’s easier than laying them in living plants growing high above the ground.  However, the eggs don’t survive in a dead plant on the ground.  Hence, very few problems with insects arise in agroforestry.  

The farmer, Damiel, proudly showed us his ample crops scattered throughout the forest.  He had a smile on his face as he cut down a heart of palm tree with two slices of his machete, and then slicing it thinly for all of us to try.  Stomping through the tall grasses, he showed us his pineapple plants.  And reaching high in the sky to get to his berry tree, he grabbed some for us all to try.  We all trampled back to class from the forest with a long sugarcane in hand which would later be made into a drink that complimented our fresh, flavorful dinner that night.  

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Their many pineapple plants!

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Banana trees grew everywhere.  This particular species was different from the type of bananas bought at your typical grocery store.  Despite their green color, they were ripe enough to eat and left a sweet taste in your mouth.

We have commoditized and exploited nature. Prioritizing revenue over biodiversity and beauty.  But nature is resilient.  It will bounce back if given the opportunity.  Nature does not need humans.  Humans need nature. 


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