by Suzanna Engman
photos by Waldemar Alcobas and Marla Browne
I find Dávila Dávila’s description to be uncannily accurate as I gaze downward at the island, out of the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental and Resources’ (DNER) rather posh single engine ten seater plane. I am with a photographer and six researchers from UPR, RP and DNER who are making the trip to gather data for a doctoral student researching an endangered cactus and to take the annual census of a long-term vegetation plot experiment.
The plane must land on an unpaved strip that appears from the air to be about as long as a suburban tract-house driveway. We land without a problem, the engine is cut, and we disembark into what I expect to be a quiet island paradise. Instead, it is immediately apparent that this place is teeming with noisy birds. I soon find out that we will hear bird noises on Mona 24/7. At night, coquìs and nocturnal birds, the black-crowned night heron (Nycticorax nycticorax hoactli) and the yellow-crowned night heron (Nyctanassa violacea bancrofti) take over sound production on the island.
At the airstrip we are greeted by DNER Resident Scientist Antonio Nieves, who loads the graduate students and baggage into the back of a DNER pickup truck. We bump along the only road—paved in places with two narrow strips of concrete and unpaved in others—through the island to our base camp. The road, I am told, was built by U.S. Armed Forces, which once used the island for military exercises. It leads from Playa Sardinera to the abandoned Mona Island Lighthouse, the only structure in the Americas designed by Gustave Eiffel.
Sometimes referred to as the Galapagos of the Caribbean, Mona Island’s strategic location and importance as an ecological research site can not be underestimated. UPR, RP researchers collaborate with the DNER, other government agencies, and NGOs to study and manage this sanctuary to several endangered animal, avian, and plant species, including the Cyclura cornuta stejnegeri, or rock iguana as it is commonly called. These endemic lizards look like living dinosaurs, with adult males weighing up to 24 pounds and measuring four feet from nose to tail. Despite being classified as endangered, they are seen on all parts of the island, and though described to me as shy and docile, I would soon witness one attack a DNER scientist. The attack was short-lived, and the botanist, José Sustache Sustache, unhurt, so we continued on our hike in search of the elusive Marsdenia woodburyana, a vine classified as critically endangered. Sustache says that only about a dozen of these plants are known to exist on earth, ten of them on Mona and two in Puerto Rico. When a vine is found, a cutting is sent to the Smithsonian Institution, as requested. Another is given to Elvia Meléndez-Ackerman, Ph.D., a UPR, RP biologist, the organizer of this trip to Mona, and the director of the Institute for Tropical Ecosystem Studies (ITES).
Left, botanist for the Department of
Natural and Environmental Resources José Sustache Sustache does
taxonomic work on the critically endangered vine, Marsdenia woodburjana,
in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution. Right, graduate
students José Fumero-Cabán
and Alberto R. Puente-Rolón use a GPS to gather data on an endangered
cactus species. Puente-Rolón is currently conducting a study on
the endangered Puerto Rican boa (Epicrates inornatus) and Fumero-Cabán
will soon start an investigation to test the influence of Africanized
bees (Apis mellifera Lepetelier scutellata) on Guyacum officinale,
an economically important tree.
Immediately after we haul our luggage into the barracks, we again pile into the truck and head out to begin field work. The researchers divide into two groups to collect data on the endangered cactus. I go with graduate student José J. Fumero and DNER biologist and graduate student Alberto R. Puente-Rolón. The terrain is rough—the ground is sharp edged and pockmarked with small and large sinkholes. It is as if we are walking on an uneven rock platform that has been scoured by acid. In fact, this is dolomite rock, a solid crystallized form of limestone. The constant corrosion, or karstification, is the result of acidic water acting on soluble limestone. Yet, while it is difficult for us walk on karst, the feral goats we spy along the sea cliff are surefooted as they sprint away. Puente-Rolón tells me that a fellow graduate student and DNER biologist, Hana López is studying these goats.
Once the researchers identify a cactus specimen, they use Global Positioning Systems (GPS) to determine its location and record the coordinates so that Rojos-Sandoval can find it again. The work is tedious and the researchers must meticulously record the data, otherwise any research based on it is invalidated. I keep myself occupied by bird watching. I spot an endangered yellow shouldered blackbird (Agelaius xanthomus), sooty terns (Sterna fuscata), and magnificent frigatebirds (Fregata magnificens), but fail to locate a brown booby (Sula leucogaster) or American osprey (Pandion haliaetus carolinensis).
We have lunch in a cave that opens to a cliff overlooking the bluest water I have ever seen. As we eat, about 150 feet below us an endangered giant leatherback turtle floats and dives. The ocean is calm now, but strong currents, high waves, and sharks make the Mona Passage one of the most dangerous waterways in the world. Each year hundreds of Cubans and Dominicans attempt the crossing to get to the United States or Puerto Rico and what they perceive to be a better life. The Cubans who make it to Mona Island, part of U.S. territory, are elated. They will be eligible as political refugees in accordance with the wet-foot, dry-foot policy to stay in the U.S. The Dominicans who reach Mona Island have shipwrecked, missed their mark, or run out of gas. They will be deported back to the Dominican Republic. According to Resident Scientist Nieves, more than 1,000 Cubans entered the U.S. through Mona and 100 Dominicans were detained there last year. After being fed and given shelter at Playa Sardinera, their boats are confiscated, and they are sent to Puerto Rico for processing.
Meléndez-Ackerman's boots after field
work on Mona Island's rough karst terrain.
After lunch it is more of the same mapping and recording until we return to camp. The next day we arise at 4:00 a.m. and are on the road by 5:00 a.m. At 6:00 a.m. we are beginning the one-and-a-half hour hike to the Empalme depression area in the middle of the island. This area is the location of a long-term vegetation plot study, set up in 1999, in which a two 49 by 82 foot sections of the forest are fenced in. The initial experiment was begun at Coral de los Indios in 1997. The plots were originally set up as a management tool to protect iguana nesting sites.
Meléndez-Ackerman’s research group took the opportunity to study the vegetation in this plot to find out what happens when goats and pigs are excluded, or at least partially excluded, from the vegetation. “In the short term, we haven’t seen any effects, but that doesn’t mean there are no effects,” says Meléndez-Ackerman. “A dry forest is characterized by lower productivity. So it may be that the answer is at the understory level. We have found that at times when there’s a lot of vegetation, goats develop preferences and an aversion for grasses. In times of scarcity, they incorporate more variety. Grass dominance hasn’t shown up in our plots yet, but after 50 years in a similar vegetation plot study in Hawaii, a large fenced-in area ended up covered with grass. After island managers excluded the goats and pigs in Hawaii they noticed that there was more primary productivity inside the fence, but it was mostly due to an invasive grass that took off after exclusion. The problem of invasives is that they don’t occur in a vacuum. The pigs and goats were probably controlling the grass. This is one of the reasons why we’re doing this experiment. We want to find out if it is beneficial to exclude goats.”
"Being a biologist in academia is tough, especially in the first ten years. You have to see yourself working ten hours a day, six or seven days a week. It’s tough on the family and on yourself. It’s not a horror story because you don’t view it as a job. You see it as something that’s part of your lifestyle, but it’s very fast paced and there is no room for mistakes."
The researchers work in pairs, one to measure and identify, the other to record. Once a year they record everything that they can see in 25 one-by-one meter plots outside and 25 one-by-one meter plots inside the fence: number of seedlings and type of seedlings, height and width of the vegetation, type of vegetation, and whether or not there is evidence of the vegetation being eaten by herbivores. First they lay a one-by-one meter wooden frame on the ground, and after all the data is recorded in that plot they move the frame to a new plot and start over again.
“This goat and pig problem is a global problem. In the Galapagos, as on other islands, there were introduced rats, goats and pigs. The goats have been there for a long time and not everybody agrees on their eradication. But goats, if unchecked, can grow to very high densities very quickly and cause desertification, where you lose trees, shrubs, and other vegetation. After they eat all the trees, they go for the next best thing, and the next best thing, and then what you have is a very simple ecosystem with very little water holding capacity, prone to soil erosion. A macrocosm of this has happened in North Africa. This is what overgrazing will do. In places where grazing is left unchecked, you have a new ecosystem. It’s a problem that in terms of its control has been more pervasive in island ecosystems, where they don’t have predators, except for humans.”
The goats and pigs were introduced by Spaniards to reproduce and supply seafarers after Christopher Columbus encountered Mona Island, called Ámona by the Taìnos who lived there, on his second voyage to the new world on a trip between Puerto Rico and Hispaniola in 1493. Spaniards used the island as a refueling spot and commissioned the Indians to make hammocks and other cotton products or to mine the caves for guano, odorless bat excrement that is used as a fertilizer or gunpowder ingredient, due to its high levels of phosphorus and nitrogen. Today scattered cotton bushes remain, as well as the numerous ancestors of the introduced pigs and goats. Five hundred years later, the very animals that sustained the Spaniards may be threatening the balance of the island’s ecosystems, despite efforts to curb the population via a designated hunting season.
The researchers finish the vegetation plot census in record time and we head back. It is a long walk at the end of a long, hot day, and by the time we reach the truck Mélendez-Ackerman’s shoes are in shreds.
What attracts her to this work? That night we sit and talk about what it means to be a scientist today.
According to Meléndez-Ackerman, a scientist will spend a great deal of time writing proposals for funding, fieldwork, public outreach, interdisciplinary research, teaching, lab work, mathematical/computational modeling, traveling, presenting research at conferences, writing papers for peer-reviewed publications, and helping graduate students with their own projects. “Being a biologist in academia is tough, especially in the first ten years. You have to see yourself working ten hours a day, six or seven days a week. It’s tough on the family and on yourself. It’s not a horror story because you don’t view it as a job. You see it as something that’s part of your lifestyle, but it’s very fast paced and there is no room for mistakes. If you don’t develop a research program quickly, you may have missed the boat. It’s hard work. At the end of the day you’re tired. You have to like it.
AKKA-SEEDS at Mona Island
The student chapter of Strategies for
Ecology, Education, Development and Sustainability (AKKA-SEEDS)
at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras campus, affiliated
with the Ecological Society of America (ESA), is developing educational
activities involving Mona Island with their mentor, Elvia Meléndez-Ackerman.
SEEDS’s mission is to diversify and advance the profession of ecology
by offering opportunities to stimulate and nurture underrepresented
undergraduate students. SEEDS offers student field trips, undergraduate
research fellowships, ESA Annual Meeting travel awards, and campus ecology
chapters. UPR, RP’s
SEEDS chapter members are currently working on an educational
DVD on Mona Island to be available at myspace.com/walcobas.
“I know that a desk job wouldn’t have worked for me because I need to do different things all the time. And that’s one thing about research in any science discipline. Science changes because new discoveries lead to new hypotheses, and that is raw material for more work. I’m doing things that I wasn’t doing ten years ago. And I know that twenty years from now I’ll be doing things that are very, very different, even though they may be related to my field in some way.”
Another essential aspect of being a biologist is dissemination of the results of research to the general public. “It is something important to us. Otherwise it is just a job without meaning. The information has to go out in a way that everybody can understand. Otherwise you cannot change public policy,” she says.
After we leave the island, the researchers have months of data analysis ahead of them. Some of the students will return again and again to the island to complete research for their theses and dissertations. The Smithsonian Institute will add another species specimen to their botanical collection. The DNER will continue to manage the island, and Meléndez-Ackerman and other UPR, RP scientists will spend many hours writing a proposal to request renewal of the CREST-CATEC grant.
Ideas drive the research, but the funds give the means to do it well. In turn, the research helps the DNER to determine management policies, including whether or not eradication of introduced species is beneficial. Ultimately, their efforts may help preserve the biodiversity of the island.
The Center for Applied Tropical Ecology and Conservation (CATEC) directed by Elvira Cuevas, Ph.D. has been awarded two back-to-back five-million-dollars grants (HRD- 0206200, HRD-0734826) with an annual $250 thousand in matching funds from UPR, RP. Support from these grants has enabled ITES scientists and students to continue long-term ecological research projects and begin new ones in areas related to conservation and management of dry forest habitats and species. In addition, these grants have funded the expansion of the campus’s research infrastructure and fostered long-term collaborations with national and international government and academic institutions. In any given year, CATEC supports more than 30 scientists and 147 graduate and undergraduate students. Elvia Meléndez-Ackerman, Ph.D. and her Mona Island research has been funded by NSF-CREST, The Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DNER), International Institute of Tropical Forestry-USDA-FS (IITF), Funds for Conservation and the Environment of the Ford Motor Company, and ESA-SEEDS. Meléndez-Ackerman’s main collaborators for the Mona Project include Denny Fernández, Ph.D of UPR, Humcao and Miguel García, Ph.D. of the DNER.