Earthwatch – The Beginning of Everything

By Taylor Rhoades, Earthwatch Volunteer

At 16, Taylor Rhoades traveled to Trinidad and South Africa with Earthwatch to conduct hands-on research alongside scientists – an experience that would set her on the path to her dream job at the Houston Zoo.

Taylor during a tour of the Dallas Zoo when she was working for the National Geographic Photo Ark.

Taylor Rhoades

At 26, it may seem silly to sit back and think about where life has taken you – but when you’ve just landed your dream job, you start to think about all the experiences that have shaped you, and how all of those years of hard work have led up to this moment. Looking back almost a decade, I can say without a doubt that my experiences with Earthwatch were key in defining both my personal and professional identities as a conservationist.

During my junior year of high school, I was aggressively pursuing a future in veterinary medicine, and knew that my ultimate goal would be to work with animals in the field, and then eventually find my way into a zoo setting as I neared retirement age. Believe me when I say 16-year-old me had it ALL figured out – but my parents, while unwavering in their support, weren’t quite sure I had thought through what life in the field would mean. They encouraged me to find a project I could go work on that would allow me to gain field experience, and that is exactly what I did!

Earthwatch was the only organization that I found that would allow someone my age to actually go out and do hands-on work in the field, working directly with wildlife and conservationists.

So, the summer before my senior year of high school, I spent two weeks in Trinidad working with leatherback sea turtles, followed by two weeks in South Africa studying brown hyenas. The trips I went on gave me a taste for field work, and I fell in love with every aspect of it – so much so that I jokingly called my parents from Trinidad and told them not to be surprised if I lost my passport. I came home energized and beyond ready to graduate so I could start the next chapter of my life.

Fast forward to college – I ended up at Texas A&M University where I started out as a pre-vet student, but ultimately switched into anthropology after meeting a professor who does cultural studies in Trinidad. We bonded over our research in a country that we both loved, and through our discussions, I realized just how much of an impact my time in the field had had on me. I didn’t just want to save wildlife, I wanted to know all about the people who lived alongside these animals. My professor mentored me for the next several years, and the more immersed I became in cultural studies, the more I understood that conservation wasn’t just about the animals – it was about people too.

After graduating with my BA in Anthropology, I went on to do my MSc in Primate Conservation at Oxford Brookes in the UK. My dissertation, entitled “A Texas Perspective: is there a preference for the conservation of endemic versus foreign species through viewing wildlife documentaries?” explored how factors such as generation and gender impact individuals, and in turn influence species preference and willingness to contribute to conservation initiatives. By this time, I knew that I wanted to work directly with people and better understand how to not just inspire the public to care, but to get them to take action to save wildlife.

After graduating from the MSc program in 2016, I completed two internships – one at the Houston Zoo with their conservation department, and one with National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore, founder of the Photo Ark. As of October 2017, I have started full-time at the Houston Zoo as the Conservation Action Analyst and I couldn’t be happier! Every day I get to offer support to our staff of over 450 conservationists and our project partners all around the world that are working tirelessly to save wildlife. Not only that, but I get to work with people in my hometown and watch them become advocates for wildlife within their own communities! I also get to join my co-workers out in the field on beach clean-ups, sea turtle surveys, and annual monarch butterfly tagging excursions, so field work is still very much a part of my life.

For years when I told people what I was studying, I would often be met with a giggle followed by a discouraging “And how will you make a living doing that?” Now, one of my favorite questions to answer is “how in the world did you get a such a cool job?” The answer? It all started with an organization called Earthwatch.

To learn more about Earthwatch teen expeditions, visit our website.

The Top 10 Earthwatch Expeditions of 2017 (according to our volunteers)!

What were the best expeditions of 2017 according to our volunteers? To find out, we tallied evaluation scores submitted by volunteers – scores that factor in safety, support, team dynamic, research contribution, training, overall satisfaction, and more. Some of the most common comments we received have to do with the inspiring and hardworking staff, the discovery of science, and the feeling of having an impact as major highlights.

1. Saving Joshua Tree’s Desert Species

Joshua tree (Courtesy Joanne Owen)Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California has seen increases in wildfires, severe storms, and persistent droughts due to climate change. Volunteers help safely trap and release reptiles, small mammals, and arthropods, and conduct vegetation surveys to better understand the movement of species within this desert ecosystem and help to develop a critical baseline understanding of how climate change is shaping this environment.

“I was impressed not only with the knowledge and expertise of the scientists, but also with their compassion and concern. This was shown by their compassion for and consideration of the research subjects, plants and animals. Traps were set and attended so as not to hurt or injure. Even plants and bugs were not unnecessarily tromped on. Each of the participants was treated with consideration and care. Even discussion of those who might not value the research or misbehaving park visitors were respected. I heard one of the scientists say, ‘It’s their park too. We have to teach them how to experience it if they don’t know how.'” – Alison Bishop

2. Uncovering the Mysteries of Colorado’s Pueblo Communities

Uncovering the Mysteries of Colorado's Pueblo Communities project site. (Courtesy Warren Stortroen)In southwest Colorado, Earthwatch volunteers are uncovering some of the least understood questions around great houses of ancestral Pueblo communities. Archaeologists at Crow Canyon Research Center are discovering the nature of Chaco influence and impact of drought on building practices during the Pueblo II period in a region filled with mountainous cliff dwellings and canyons.

“All of the staff and researchers at Crow Canyon are great to work with. They are always attentive to the needs of volunteers, and show that they really care about our welfare and our involvement in the research.” – Warren Stortroen

3. Amazon Riverboat Exploration

Volunteers cruising down the Samiria River in the Amazon. (Courtesy Pablo Puertas)A kaleidoscope of wildlife lives deep in the heart of Peru’s flooded Amazon region, including rare pink river dolphins, macaws, and small alligator-like caimans. Volunteers survey these species and more while operating out of a historic boat – collecting data that directly shape local conservation and management policies.

“I am a bench experimental biologist. The expedition introduced me to an entirely different kind of science. Learning about community-based conservation, meeting the young biologists who were our teachers and the local people who were our boatmen, and experiencing environments and landscapes entirely new to me – it was enormously enjoyable.” – Barbara Baltelle

4. Wildlife in the Changing Andorran Pyrenees

The Andorran Pyrenees (Courtesy Mathew Yee)In the high slopes of the Andorran Pyrenees, as in other mountain ecosystems, climate change is altering the landscape. Volunteers are helping researchers to investigate the amazing biodiversity of these forests and alpine meadows so they can identify mitigation strategies. During their nine days on the project, they learn to identify birds, assess mammal diversity with camera traps, study alpine flowers, and track bats under the stars.

“The scientists – Bernat, Irene and Jana – could not have provided a better experience. Their enthusiasm and eagerness to share information engaged the team and allowed us to feel a real part of this project. I learned a great deal about employing scientific method to obtain data that would be of value. As a new retiree, it felt great to realize continued physical and mental abilities that could be of use. I was always encouraged to challenge myself, but never expected to do more than what I was comfortable with.” – Henry Bowen

5. Wildlife of the Mongolian Steppe

Siberian ibex running across the Mongolian Steppe.A wilderness landscape with a rich diversity of wildlife that few people ever experience – that’s the beauty of Mongolia. Here, volunteers are assessing the health and behavior of Argali sheep, Lesser Kestrels, Cinereous Vultures, Siberian ibex, and other species – many of which are threatened by poaching, illegal mining, and overgrazing.

“I learned a lot about the local community and the project. The community is highly involved, therefore you can see the impact. I learned from the herdsmen that during the past 30 years, climate change has had a direct impact on the local community. This project also brought out the best in me as I learned to work with my fellow teammates.” – Bernard Johnpulle

6. Climate Change at the Arctic’s Edge

Volunteers conducting field research during the expedition Climate Change at the Arctic's Edge. (Courtesy Erica Marlaine)Churchill, Manitoba, known as the “polar bear capital of the world,” is located at the Arctic treeline and is extremely sensitive to small environmental changes that have a huge impact on ecosystems. Warming temperatures have led to shrinking areas of polar sea ice, freshwater wetlands that are drying up, and less extensive winter snowpack that melts earlier. Volunteers are helping researchers to gather evidence of climate change in this extraordinary region to better understand what the future may have in store for the environment.

“The expedition made me realize that this is the type of work I would possibly want to do in the future. Before this, I didn’t know what being a field scientist really entailed. But being a part of this team made me appreciate the work of field (and all) scientists and truly understand the importance of work like this.” – Olivia Ellman

7. Protecting Whooping Cranes and Coastal Habitats in Texas

Two adult Whooping Cranes with a subadult in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. (Courtesy Dave Rein)Hunting pressure and landscape changes have pushed the endangered Whooping Crane to the brink of extinction. Thanks to conservation efforts, the only wild migratory population, which winters in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, has grown from just 15 birds to more than 300. Volunteers are helping scientists along the Gulf Coast of Texas, a region that has seen some of the most devastating impacts of Hurricane Harvey, to survey Whooping Crane habitat and foraging patterns to inform protection measures for their winter home.

“This program provides an excellent opportunity for the average citizen to become educated about our planet at a level beyond the textbook. I learned more about the earth’s beautiful resources and the importance of protecting this endangered species and its habitat. I gained firsthand knowledge of the work by the few that care so much to dedicate their lives to accomplish this.” – Rick Bryant

8. Following Forest Owls in the Western U.S.

Volunteers measure owls.Deep within the aspen groves in northern Utah and the riparian canyon and coniferous forests in southeastern Arizona, a suite of small forest owl species seek out tree cavities for their nests. But climate change threatens to disrupt the routine of these species. Researchers, assisted by Earthwatch volunteers, are conducting nesting surveys, measuring, photographing, and banding several small cavity-nesting owl species, including Flammulated, Elf, and Whiskered Screech Owls.

“I have been on 17 Earthwatch expeditions and this was one of the best. Dave and Markus (the scientists) were always patient, enthusiastic and generous. They understood that a key ingredient of a successful expedition is making certain that the volunteers feel useful. We all worked hard and reveled in that.” – Alice Jacklet

9. Climate Change: Sea to Trees at Acadia National Park

Acadia National Park (Courtesy Thomas Tepstad Berge)Maine’s Acadia National Park is a popular pit-stop for migratory birds that need to rest and refuel, thanks to its abundance of berries and insects. But changes in climate have shifted the timing of this rendezvous, which may affect the survival of species that rely on each other for pollination and sustenance. Volunteers are assisting scientists in studying the effects of climate change on land, in freshwater lakes and streams, and along the rocky seashore of this iconic New England landscape.

“Real world data collection – fantastic! The Schoodic area is breathtakingly beautiful. The variety of tasks and environments (forest and intertidal) made for an interesting adventure. Also, I now know what phenology is! This project gave me an appreciation for the difficulty of getting good data.” – Michael Flumian

10. Conserving Marine Life along Catalina’s Coast

Volunteers kayaking off the coast of Catalina Island. (Courtesy Brad Stevenson)On the picturesque island of Catalina, located off the coast of southern California, scientists and Earthwatch volunteers are assessing the impact of Marine Protected Areas on the abundance of species such as California sea lions, gray whales, and common dolphins. They are also monitoring threats from climate change and human activities and helping to conserve this unique coastal habitat.

“The expedition opened my eyes to the opportunities within science and the accessibility for all. Also, that science is something which should be enjoyed as well as questioned.” – Emily Mawbey

To learn more about any of these projects, visit the Earthwatch website, email us at, or call us at 1-800-776-0188.

Earthwatch: ‘An experience that will always be a part of you.’

By Jan Boal

Author Jan Boal believes in tuning oneself in to the signs from the universe. Her book, “Safari for the Soul,” explores her journey in finally heeding these signs and taking a leap of faith in herself, deciding to travel the world solo. During her year of self-discovery, she volunteered on three Earthwatch expeditions and was profoundly changed.

Author Jan Boal during an Earthwatch expedition.

Author Jan Boal during an Earthwatch expedition.

“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” — John Muir

I recently had the absolute pleasure of meeting the staff of Earthwatch Institute at their Boston Headquarters. Not only was I warmed by their sincerity, but I was grateful for their vision and dedication in pursuit of caring for our planet.

In 2011, I volunteered on three expeditions, Blazing the Biodiversity Trail in Brazil, Dolphins of Greece, and Saving Kenya’s Black Rhinos. I was 52 at the time, single and following my calling. I knew it would be like when I went off to college: Anticipation of what was to come, knowing I would be different when I returned, and anxious for all those same reasons along with traveling alone to these far away countries. This was one of the best decisions I have ever made for myself.

Like college and getting an education, it is the same when venturing off with Earthwatch — an education, an experience that will always be a part of you, a broadening of yourself, like a breath of fresh air, a new you. Be prepared that volunteering on an expedition is quite holistic and all-encompassing. You will learn about the animal/environment you signed up for as well as the culture of this environment and its impact and struggles dealing with whatever threatened issue is involved.


Black rhinos as seen by Jan Boal on the expedition Saving Kenya's Black Rhinos.

You will experience being around a type of passion we seldom experience, usually only witnessing it in the movies. I am talking about the directors of the sites — these scientists who eat, sleep, and breathe in pursuit of their cause — who do it with such dedication and enthusiasm that once you experience this it will unlock something within yourself.

Admiration and unlimited gratitude is what I felt when I went to sleep each night after returning from my expeditions. I knew these scientists were continuing their calling, their mission in gathering data and saving a part of our world — day, after day, after day, after day.

The hands-on experience, learning something new and foreign, being challenged by this — by the travel, unfamiliar ways, and culture — working on a volunteer team consisting of such a variety of people unknown to you, realization of situation, the direness and frustration of this environmental issue, and the pride and joy you will experience is profound and life changing.

I encourage you to trust in this process and have an experience, a journey of a lifetime. You won’t regret it! Be a piece of the puzzle that helps to solve the problem and save our home we call Earth.

Teen Team Facilitators: From The Field to the Classroom

Teens can spend a summer exploring the planet, growing their brains, all while under expert supervision? I know, it seems too good to be true, but not on an Earthwatch expedition. On each Earthwatch Teen Expedition, young adults work alongside renowned scientists at the cutting edge of conservation research and gain experience studying today’s most pressing environmental challenges. In addition to the scientific staff, each teen expedition features trained and experienced Earthwatch teen team facilitators who offer supervision and guidance throughout the expedition. These facilitators are the key to building a solid group dynamic while ensuring a vital platform for learning and personal development for students. I was lucky enough to chat with ten-time expedition facilitator, Mike Mao.

Mike Mao (far left in red) leads a group of teens in The Bahamas

Mike Mao (far left in red) leads a group of teens in The Bahamas

Currently a math and science teacher at Westwood High School in Westwood, Massachusetts, Mike has been a teen team facilitator ten times, including three teams in just one summer. “I love to travel and I love working with teenagers,” Mike said. “In the past five years, I’ve been on teams in Trinidad, California, the Bahamas, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Belize. I like to expose people to science, especially young people.”

Mike previously chaperoned students on foreign language class trips to France and was asked by a fellow Westwood High teacher if he would be interested in facilitating on an Earthwatch expedition. “Since I started teaching, I’d been traveling more during the summers, and on top of that I am an avid hiker and really like the outdoors. I signed up to study leatherback sea turtles in Trinidad and have been hooked ever since. I really loved the experience and it made me want to come back summer after summer. I love to travel, I love to work with the kids, and this was the perfect balance between the two.”

Teens studying coffee plants in Costa Rica (copyright Mike Mao)

Teens study coffee plants in Costa Rica (copyright Mike Mao)

Mike is also able to take what he sees out in the field and use it with his students in the classroom. “I teach math, but a lot of the time I’m able to relate my experiences on an expedition with something that comes up in the classroom.” At Westwood High, there is a course called “Save the World” that allows students the opportunity to study the environment in specific areas of interest. “I will go into those classrooms,” said Mike, “and talk about my experience with Earthwatch. It helps to give the students perspectives that things like this exist, it makes it more relatable. Tagging sea turtles in the Caribbean? I’ve done that. It makes it not so far-fetched for them.”

04 Fieldwork-c. Dr. Sam Burgess

Teen team examines a leatherback sea turtle on the beaches of Trinidad (copyright Dr. Sam Burgess)

Mike continues volunteering and has plans to continue facilitating on Earthwatch expeditions. “I just really love doing the expeditions and have plans to do as many as I can. I’m actually in talks to go again this summer. But I can’t brag, there are some facilitators who have done more than twenty! These expeditions are a really incredible experience, and not just because working with the kids is so rewarding, but because I am actually learning something. I come back from facilitating each time just amazed at everything I have learned through the experience.”

This summer, Earthwatch is sending teen teams (and Mike!) out in the field to participate in exciting hands-on research. From studying the effects of climate change on wetlands in the Canadian Arctic, to examining leatherback sea turtles as they lay their eggs on Trinidad beaches, Earthwatch expeditions reach many corners of the world and encompass a variety of interests for adults and teens alike. Interested donors can sponsor a student fellowship or set up a tax-deductible Expedition Fund to help teens raise money in their schools and communities to join an expedition. To learn more about Earthwatch Expeditions, visit the website.


Volunteer cheers after a successful day of research in Madagascar (copyright Joel Quimby)

Expeditions with a Little Help from Our Friends

Conserving the Earth isn’t easy. Everyone has the right to nature, and to understand how people are affected by the way nature works. This understanding requires we get by with untold hours of real and meaningful action, extensive research, and community outreach and education. This is why Earthwatch Expeditions were created.

We pair citizen scientists (people like you who’d like a chance to do some real science) with some of the leading scientists in their fields to help measure, track, record,  observe, snorkel, photograph, weigh, sample, touch, listen, build, learn, tag, and teach. None of this can occur without funding.

Seeking wildlife in South Africa (photo: Kate Grounds)

Seeking wildlife in South Africa (photo: Kate Grounds)

Underwriting overcomes many research obstacles
Fixed costs for research programs can be high. It can be a lot to ask expedition participants to carry the full burden of this expense. A few years back, Earthwatch identified a way to reduce the cost barrier to those who wanted to volunteer their time but who may not have had the deep pockets required to cover a program’s full expenses: underwriting.

When a passionate donor opts to underwrite a project, many of the hard costs – such as operating the research facility, sending a lead scientist and his or her team to the site, feeding and housing them, and supplying their research equipment – can be underwritten so that volunteers contribute only costs associated with their participation.

Underwriting also provides stability for the scientist, as the research team is assured of having their overhead paid for without reliance on a certain number of participants joining the expedition.

In 2012, one donor, Pam Chesonis, came to Earthwatch with a passion for science and a belief in the value of asking questions about the way nature works and how people fit into it. Pam is a benefactor of the Chesonis Family Foundation, and she was actively looking for opportunities to support researchers who shared a similar passion and belief.

“I originally saw an article in the newspaper talking about volunteer vacations that mentioned Earthwatch. I had always been interested in wildlife conservation and regretted it wasn’t a path I headed down in my career. When I investigated further, Earthwatch seemed a perfect fit to get my family’s foundation involved to help conserve species.”

And indeed, Pam did get involved.

“My first expedition was working with Trinidad’s Leatherback Sea Turtles. It was making such a great impact. I got to see how research was done and to work up close with animals, which  was exactly what I was looking for. It  allowed me to change the environment by directly impacting the community.”

Her first year of underwriting, Pam supported three research projects: Trinidad’s Leatherback Sea Turtles, the Red Sea Dolphin Project, and Dolphins of Greece. Her generous contribution covered research costs and also enabled Community Fellows to join the expeditions.

Leatherback sea turtles nesting, Matura beach, Trinidad (photo: Sandy Nesbitt)

Leatherback sea turtles nesting, Matura beach, Trinidad (photo: Sandy Nesbitt)

Community Fellows can be jolly good
Earthwatch is about not only science, but also the engagement of people in science, which is key to changing the world. Community Fellows are local people invited by the lead scientist to join an expedition team who have an interest in the program, or can make an impact on it. The benefits of the Community Fellowship program include:

  1. Integrating research into the community – Engagement of key local stakeholders helps commit them to the environmental issues being studied. This also helps build a community network that can help influence change in practices. On one program, the Minister of Tourism of the host country was chosen as a fellow because  he was in a position to actually make changes in tourism policy.
  2. Enabling personal and professional development of community members – Community members are selected based on their potential to gain knowledge they would not have had the opportunity to gain otherwise. For instance, teachers can be equipped with a better understanding of science that they can pass on to their students.
  3. Providing other volunteers with an enriched local experience. – On these unique teams, volunteers can work and share meals side by side with community members. This deepens a volunteer’s exposure to local language, culture, and ideas.
  4. Enhancing the scientist’s field research – The amount of data that can be collected is dependent on the number of volunteers participating. By adding community members, more data can be collected and more research can be achieved.
  5. Increasing the number of participants during some parts of the year – To answer scientific questions, researchers must collect data during particular times of the year. Sometimes an expedition may be scheduled during a time of year that is not popular with volunteers. Community Fellows are strategically placed on teams that may otherwise not have enrolled a sufficient number of volunteers.

Underwriting dollars through Pam Chesonis helped make a significant impact on ocean research by enabling a range of community members to join research projects in the field. For instance:

On the Red Sea Dolphin Project, local engineers and photo journalists participated to learn about the Red Sea and its threats. The engineers helped create new research equipment that allows data to be captured more effectively. The photographers used their tricks of the trade to improve the pictures used to identify dolphins. The images captured by the photographers also appeared in their own articles, helping to spread word of the experience beyond those who participated in the expedition.

Photographer on dolphin program in Egypt (photo: HEPCA)

Photographer on dolphin program in Egypt (photo: HEPCA)

On Dolphins of Greece, local college students majoring in marine biology were able to gain hands-on experience collecting data on dolphins. Some of these students will become the premier scientists in their field on whom citizens will depend on for important findings and decisions.

Dolphins in Greece with the Tethys Research Institute (photo: Dr. Giovanni Bearzi)

Dolphins in Greece with the Tethys Research Institute (photo: Dr. Giovanni Bearzi)

The future isn’t what it used to be
With the success of research underwritten last year, Pam Chesonis and her Foundation have committed to generously underwrite programs in 2013 and beyond. In addition to once again sponsoring Trinidad’s Leatherback Sea Turtles, she will sponsor Conserving Leopards and Monkeys in South Africa and Safeguarding Whales and Dolphins in Costa Rica.

“Our involvement is because we want to make a difference. I pick projects that I feel need the extra push and will get the most impact from our dollars. The project we picked in Egypt (Red Sea Dolphin Project) might be tough to get volunteers for because of what is going on in Egypt, so bringing locals onto the project has had a huge impact. Because of our sponsorship, another organization also provided substantial sponsorship, so contributing really had a lasting impact.”

On Pam’s longer-term plans in working with Earthwatch:

“Our commitment is for three years, and after that, we will take a look at where we go forward from there. For each project, every year, we get to see the results of where the money went. People on the expeditions often write to us. We use all of this to see if this is a worthwhile future endeavor.”

Earthwatch Expeditions are always in need of continued support. Interested donors with questions about how they can get involved with research are encouraged to contact Mark Chandler, Director of Research, at or at 978-450-1227.

Nature’s Equilibrium Isn’t Monkey Business

There’s a reason scientists and volunteers are tracking chimpanzees in the Budongo Forest in Uganda – and it’s not just because National Geographic put Uganda in its list of Top 20 global destinations.

Group of Sonso community chimpanzees.

Group of Sonso community chimpanzees.

Chimpanzees are an endangered species, decreasing at unsustainable rates. Many chimpanzee troops in Uganda are under long-term study to fully understand these population declines and the steps needed to reverse the trends. Yet, a recent census indicates the chimpanzee population within the Budongo Forest Reserve could be on the rise.

While the Budongo population increase is clearly great news for the primate, a bigger family comes with a higher price. A possible result stemming from this suggested population increase is a higher demand for fruit from trees in the forest, the same fruit that forms the basis of a natural chimpanzee diet. With other studies indicating that the number of fruiting trees is decreasing, this may mean not enough fruit to go around for all the chimps! This may contribute toward forcing chimpanzees to expand their search for food beyond the forest, and into local farms. And when farmers have their crops raided, they aren’t happy. This causes conflict.

Primates on the farm.

Primates on the farm.

Conflict Evolves Between Humans and Chimpanzees
This is where participants on Tracking Chimps Through The Trees of Uganda help solve one of nature’s puzzles. One of the research topics at the Budongo Conservation Field Station within the Budongo Forest Reserve is to examine the species conflict between humans and their closest living relative, the chimpanzee.

Lucy Bruzzone is a Project Manager for Earthwatch, and recently returned from Uganda where she observed chimpanzees and other primates that inhabit the forest first-hand. Lucy manages 16 different expeditions for Earthwatch, and has traveled to locations across the map, including Borneo, Thailand, the French Alps, and the Scottish Hebrides visiting projects. This was her first trip to Uganda, and she helped bring this local story and its research needs to life.

Lucy Bruzzone, Earthwatch Project Manager, Tracking Chimpanzees.

Lucy Bruzzone, Earthwatch Project Manager, Tracking Chimpanzees.

“The original research question from Earthwatch lead scientist and, ecologist, Dr. Fred Babweteera, came about from the results of long-term research being conducted in the area on forest ecology. Data collected in the last 20 years on tree phenology – fruiting and flowering cycles – have shown a decrease by 15% in the total number of trees producing fruit in the last 15 years. This raises the question of why? And what are the implications? How has this impacted the primate populations and in turn the local human population? If primates can’t eat the fruit, what is their main food source? Where would they go to supplement their diet? Do they forage at different times or places? Do they raid people’s crops more often?”

Crop-raiding by primates is a well-known problem and a serious contributor to human-primate conflict, and these are questions researchers must consider when investigating. Lucy continued:

“We are hopeful that with research help from volunteers, the project can help us better understand the impact of the decreasing fruit abundance, and this will help to inform management strategies in collaboration with the National Forestry Association that manages the Reserve. Such strategies will hopefully enable chimpanzee and humans to live together in harmony, in their shared environment.”

Evolution Took Years, and So Does Chimpanzee Data Collection
If these changes are being seen across the Reserve, researchers want to identify why the changes are happening so they can make recommendations in their management strategies to address them. If the changes are actually localized to the original research area, this may be due to specific tree species, microclimate or other environmental change in the area. Understanding all this will be key to the management strategy created and recommendations made. And the answers don’t come over night.

“There is a unique long-term data set here that researchers started looking at in the 90’s. Primates have fixed home ranges and rarely move about, so it is possible to study the same troops and groups that were studied back when data was first collected to see if any changes in habits have occurred linked to changing fruiting patterns. Equally, the team at the Budongo Conservation Field Station has recently expanded their research area and more hands-on help is needed to collect the data to answer these questions. This is where Earthwatch volunteers help.”

Lucy explained further.

“The BCFS wants to see if the changes they’ve identified in their local area of the forest are unique, or if they are being seen across the Budongo Forest Reserve. By helping to collect data on tree flowering and fruiting, insect populations, chimpanzee and monkey diets and crop raiding, Earthwatch volunteers can help investigate the situation, and hopefully help resolve it.”

Chimpanzees in the trees of Uganda.

Chimpanzees in the trees of Uganda.

Every five years, there is a census that estimates how many animals there are in the Budongo Forest so that population trends can be monitored and the causes or impacts of these trends can be investigated. With thorough research and subsequent management strategies, it is hoped that human-primate conflict in the area can be reduced and forest health improved. In the future, research results should lead to a positive outcome for both local communities and primate populations around the Budongo Forest Reserve.

The next census is in 2015, so there is plenty of research to keep everyone busy until then. We hope you can join us in the forest.

Assuring Volunteers Can Safeguard Dolphins

Before Earthwatch sends volunteers into the field on an expedition, there are a ton of details to arrange. Caroline Dunn is an Earthwatch program manager who conducts pre-fielding visits so that volunteers can be assured a once-in-a-lifetime experience, while scientists can be assured that research gathered meets their needs. Caroline just returned from Costa Rica where a new expedition will take place in 2013: Safeguarding Whales & Dolphins. Her experiences need to be shared!

Photo ID'ing Bottlenose Dolphins

Photo ID’ing Bottlenose Dolphins

Caroline used to live in Costa Rica. She first went there for Outward Bound in 1999, and then studied there for a semester while in college. She followed that up with three more internships there. Since graduation in 2003, Caroline’s returned about once a year to visit friends and enjoy the beauty of the country. But the pre-fielding trip was her first visit on behalf of Earthwatch.

“Since I’ve been to Costa Rica several times since college, I was pretty comfortable returning. But I had never been to Gulfo Dulce where this expedition will take place. It’s like the tropical paradise you see in postcards. It’s completely remote. You take a puddle hopper plane to get there, and you don’t see many visitors. It feels really untouched. It was breathtakingly beautiful, and in contrast to other places in Costa Rica that are well traveled by tourists. The tourism and crowds hasn’t happened yet in Gulfo Dulce.”

I asked Caroline to describe her time there, and what her responsibilities were.

“The primary purpose of a pre-fielding trip is to conduct risk assessment, venue assessment and to train scientist on working with volunteers. For instance, are the accommodations clean, and how many people will be in a room? What are the vehicles that will be used for transportation? Do they all have seatbelts? Are the boats in good condition? Do they have enough life vests? What is the captain like? We also like to build relationships with the scientist, who in this case is Lenin Oviedo.”

While that sounded interesting, I must admit, I was more curious about the dolphin research.

Safeguarding Dolphins in Gulfo Dulce
Examining dolphin behavior is longitudinal research, research conducted over time, with the hope of gathering enough data to help provide evidence to support a marine protection policy.

Male Bottlenose Dolphins in Gulfo Dulce

Male Bottlenose Dolphins in Gulfo Dulce

 Behavior Sampling
“The way it works is we cruise around in a boat, which was extremely pleasant because the water is calm and flat. We’d scan the water and stop every half hour, or whenever we’d see dolphins. When we saw dolphins, we’d record their location via GPS, the time, and what they are doing. Perhaps they were foraging for food, or mating, or traveling – these are names of the behavior events that scientists use. The dolphins could be resting, or playing. We’d get a sense of water conditions and what the dolphins are doing. We did this in several areas to identify critical habitat so that Gulfo Dulce can ultimately be better protected.”

Photo ID of Dolphins
“One of the reasons this is done is to identify individual dolphins and determine if the dolphin populations that use the Gulf are contained. In other words, these dolphins fully depend on the Gulf, all year long, because it’s their home.  Identifying individual dolphins also helps to identify diseases and help find the source to mitigate the cause. For instance, disease could be caused from run-off of agricultural chemicals from nearby coastal development into river mouths where dolphins hang out. Or, dolphins could bring it back to the Gulf when they return from migration.”

Focal species of dolphins (photo credit: Lenin Oviedo)

Focal species of dolphins (photo credit: Lenin Oviedo)

Longitudinal Research Goes Full Circle
“It really is a full circle. There is the Gulf and the dolphins. And there are the individuals who own the accommodations. Their son is field team leader on the expedition and helps with the research. And the lead scientist met the accommodation owners while doing research. And there’s the captain of the boat. The area is just so important to the community. Everything is so intertwined. And the volunteers will get to experience it all.”

Building El Chontal from the Ground Up
“A gentleman named Jorge and his wife Susi own and operate El Chontal, which are the accommodations where guests will be staying. They are also the parents of David, the field team leader on the expedition who support Lenin Oviedo. Jorge had grown up there on a farm in a tiny town with less than 10 kids in the local school. There isn’t much tourism because it is so removed from the ports.

One day, a foreigner on a kayak pulled up looking for a place to stay. Susi didn’t want to turn him away. Later, Susi thought maybe she could do this on a larger scale. So Susi and Jorge together built El Chontal, personally building all the cabins and planting the gardens. It’s rustic, and artistically very beautiful. They blow a conch shell when it is meal time, and you go and eat at their house. Susi is an amazing cook, making typical Costa Rican meals, and never the same thing twice. Their location is used by international visitors from around the world, largely who are there to do dolphin research.

Cabin and Garden at El Chontal, Built by Jorge & Susi (photo credit: Christine Figgener)

Cabin and Garden at El Chontal, Built by Jorge & Susi (photo credit: Christine Figgener)

Meeting the Lead Scientist
“Lenin Oviedo met Jorge and Susi while doing field research there in 2007 and they’ve been friends and colleagues ever since. Lenin is enthusiastic and laughs constantly. He is eager to share his research, and it is clear that while he is from Venezuela, he has bonded with all the locals. He takes care of everybody on the project, and gives credit where credit is due.”

The Captain and His Dolphins
 “The boat you take to scout dolphins and whales is called Tobago, and its Captain is also named Tobago. He is highly respected and skilled. When there is an emergency, people call him instead of the Coast Guard. In the community, people even consider the dolphins ‘his dolphins.’ When other boats come along, they ask for Tobago’s permission before they approach them. People radio to him all the time: ‘Tobago, I saw your dolphins over here, or over there.’ He has enabled several PhDs to come out of Gulfo Dulce, because without him, many of them couldn’t have completed their research. And of course, he brings you little pastries every day out on the boat.”

In speaking to Caroline, what struck me was how amazing her experience was, all while still in the process of perfecting the details for volunteers and their upcoming experience. I can only imagine what this expedition will be like come March, once details have been fully vetted, and the whales return from their migration to join the dolphins in the Gulf.

(Wait about 15 seconds to see dolphins leaping! Sorry for the lack of sound. Video credit: Caroline Dunn)