A group of Benedictine University biology students spent nine days this past spring living the life of marine biologists in the Bahamas, hopping from island to island to conduct research on the critically endangered rock iguana.
Hothaifah Othman, a senior from Plainfield; Emily Maldonado, a Lockport native who earned a bachelor's degree in biology in May; and Michael Boland, a junior from Naperville, went on the whirlwind adventure after enrolling in the Shedd Aquarium's Marine and Island Ecology of the Bahamas research course.
Offered to students enrolled in an Associated Colleges of the Chicago Area affiliated school, the 20-year-old program provides an opportunity for area college students to learn about conservation and subtropical marine and island ecosystems through a combination of lectures and hands-on learning.
The program was inspired by Charles Knapp, vice president of conservation research at the Shedd Aquarium, and his research on the iguanas.
On Gaulin Cay, students caught several iguanas and measured the weight and length of their bodies and tails to gather information used in assessing the overall health of the population.
The iguanas are threatened by habitat loss; the introduction of predators such as dogs, goats and pigs; illegal hunting; increasing contact with tourists; and illicit pet trade smuggling.
The same factors that contribute to their decline also impact other marine life, making the iguanas a model species to promote the conservation of these island and nearshore ecosystems.
"In order to protect endangered species, we must first understand their biology and ecology, as well as how they interact with their community," said Rebecca Gericke, manager of Conservation Research Programs and lead instructor for the Bahamian Marine and Island Ecology course. "Changes to even one island can have major impacts on the population."
This includes the detrimental effects on iguanas when tourists feed them junk food. Recent research has shown that the Bahamian iguanas have had digestive problems, a range of nutritional deficiencies and elevated cholesterol levels as a result.
"Oceans are highly connected, complex ecosystems, and each animal and plant plays an important role," Gericke said. "I hope students left the class feeling a personal connection to the natural world and a desire to help protect it."
Before traveling, students took classes studying various habitats, animals, plants and the interactions of species found in the Bahamas. During the expedition, students assisted other scientists aboard Shedd's 80-foot research vessel, the R/V Coral Reef II.
The students also spent their days snorkeling in clear blue waters and hiking on rugged limestone islands to identify and observe native species in their natural habitat.
The program is perfect for students who have a passion for marine ecology or enjoy learning more about sea and island life, Othman said.
"I am interested in everything about biology, from the largest organisms to the tiniest organelles within a living cell," he said. "I like learning about and standing in awe at how thousands of interactions are happening every second 'behind the scenes.'
"It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to live on a boat, visit islands untampered (with) by resorts and industrialization, and to finally swim with the fish that I have only had the privilege of seeing through a pane."