Maldives: Roundup, pictures, videos

During the 2018 Maldives expedition citizen scientist SCUBA divers used the Reef Check methodology to record coral health, species and life forms from three inner sheltered reefs and three more outer reefs exposed to the open ocean. Results have shown that the outer reef sites are resilient to temperature-induced coral bleaching (from the warming event in April 2016). They also appear to attract the greatest number of recruits (young coral polyps living in the water settling down to start growing) from shallow to deeper waters. Inner reefs, by contrast, have been very badly affected by the bleaching, suffering almost total coral death since the 2016 warming event. Some sites are now dominated completely by macroalgae, others by sponges and turfs. Alarmingly, once reefs have undergone this ‘phase shift’ from coral to algae, sponges or turf, the ‘rainforest of the seas’ with high underwater biodiversity and beauty has gone and is unlikely to return.

Snapper, grouper and other commercial fish species were absent, small, or at low densities on all dives, suggesting that there remains heavy fishing pressure throughout the atolls. Although the prospect for many reefs is poor, particularly around the sheltered house reefs of inner atolls, there remain remarkable wildlife spectacles at some channel reef sites, and well-known dive sites. Sharks (grey reef, black tip and white-tip; manta and whale shark were all seen on the expedition), and some of the diving in more remote areas (away from resorts and inhabited islands) is still excellent. The overall outlook, however, is deeply concerning. The new Maldives government, which has made positive noises in terms of reef conservation, must act now to prevent a collapse of the reef ecosystem, which forms the very bedrock of the Maldivian geography, economy and culture.

Below are some pictures and videos of the expedition. Thank you to Gemma Thompson for sharing many of them.

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Costa Rica: Roundup & pictures/videos

Direct effects of citizen science

On the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, leatherback turtles come ashore to lay their eggs each night during the early February to late May nesting season. The Caribbean leatherback turtles is listed as Endangered on the IUCN red list and one of the main threats to its survival is poaching of eggs. In Costa Rica turtle eggs are believed to be an aphrodisiac and sell for about $2 per egg, a significant sum of money. Poachers roam the beaches at night stealing the eggs from female turtles coming ashore to build their nest. Conservation projects have been established along the beaches to combat this problem. Latin American Sea Turtles (LAST) run such a project, with Biosphere Expeditions providing citizen scientist volunteers.

At the beginning of the nesting season, a hatchery is constructed and then guarded 24 hours a day, keeping poachers away. Eggs from turtles encountered during the nightly beach patrols are relocated there. “The first year I was here, in 2016, we encountered several teams of poachers each night” says Biosphere Expeditions leader Ida Vincent, “but this year I have seen far fewer”. The data collected by the citizen scientist teams supports this observations: In the previous two years about 50 percent of nests were lost to poachers, but in the 2018 season only 20 percent appear to have been poached, with 80 percent safely developing in the hatchery. “There are a few reasons why the number of poachers has dropped” explains Fabian Carrasco, the onsite scientist from LAST, “last year four poachers were arrested by the Coast Guard, which has scared other poachers from returning this season. We have also been sending out a lot of patrols each night, which is deterring poachers. With more citizen scientists on the beach each night than poachers, the numbers are simply against them and we are more likely to encounter a turtle before they are.”

There has also been an increase in employment in the village and as such the need to poach for income has decreased. LAST is part of this effort through their guide programme, which trains former poachers to be patrol guides and therefore protect, rather than poach eggs. “Their knowledge of spotting turtles and collecting eggs makes them expert turtle finders and with a steady income, the incentive to poach is much reduced”, explains Carrasco. LAST have also set up a weekly market day when people from the community come to the research station selling their goods (fresh fruit, homemade coconut cake and turtle-themed souvenirs) to the visiting citizen scientists. One of them is Talar Attarian from the USA, who says that “it’s wonderful to support the locals, providing an alternative income to poaching”.

Below are some pictures (thanks to Georg Berg and Nicole Stinn for many of them) and videos of the expedition:

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Germany: Round-up & pictures

The 2018 Lower Saxony wolf expedition in Germany covered over 730 km on foot and bike over ten survey days. Over 200 scat samples for DNA and diet analyses were collected.

Peter Schütte, the expedition scientist and a wolf commissioner in Lower Saxony calls this “another great result after the 2017 expedition“ and is “delighted with the quality and quantity of the data collected”, which he presented at an important conference in September.

Dr. Matthias Hammer, founder and executive director of Biosphere Expeditions, adds: “This is another remarkable result. I hope our work will help to convince those in Germany who are against the wolf’s return, because being a wolf country not only brings challenges, but also opportunities.  The debate about the wolf’s return is often clouded by emotions, polemics or even populist arguments. Problems are overemphasised and opportunities are hardly ever discussed. Why not, for example, a little bit of the Masai Mara – with livestock, predators and tourism – in the famously picturesque Lüneburg Heath? I hope our work will open people’s eyes for opportunities.“

Some pictures and videos of the expedition are shown below:

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15 years of Azores expeditions: the power of long-term datasets

Whale watching can be undertaken in a morning, but watching whales to better understand their movements and ecology takes time – fifteen years (and counting) to be precise. Biosphere Expeditions has just completed its 15th year of expeditions in the Azores, monitoring the cetacean movements, covering over 15 different species.

Many research questions focused on the natural world cannot be addressed (with any certainty) in a month or a single year. Data collection may take a decade or longer, to reveal meaningful patterns and this is the case with the cetaceans of the Azores.

Rewards can be faster. Images of sperm whales and blue whales taken this year, have already been matched to other locations in the Azores, Norway and Ireland. But many more whales have still yet to be matched, revealing the range of their movements and the importance of different parts of the oceans.

This year’s project still has a lot of data to process, from 122 cetacean encounters over 22 days at sea, sighting over 1000 individuals. But some species are absent from this year’s research findings and dolphins have been found in lower numbers.

With the expedition fieldwork now commencing in March, “it has also been great to get out on the water earlier in the year”, says expedition scientist Lisa Steiner, “and collect data on a range of species, across a broader time span. The value of this work is very significant, as we would not have documented the 18 blue whales recorded, or the many other species, since there are very few other boats out at this time of year”.

Understanding spatial and temporal patterns of so many cetaceans is key to their long-term protection and conservation. And undertaking field research, especially when others are not around, reveals new information such as species being absent or present in lower or higher numbers compared to other years. But the true conservation context can only be gained after many years of work.

“The ability to collect such data is greatly enhanced by the annual contribution of citizen scientists”, says expedition leader Craig Turner, “and underlines the value of long-term datasets in illustrating the importance of the Azores for many cetacean species”. Steiner adds that “not only are we able to match individuals to catalogues in the Azores with these data, but often from elsewhere in the Atlantic too, sometimes even beyond, elevating the power and value of the data”.

In the end it will all be about appropriate conservation management based on scientific facts to ensure these much-loved whale and dolphin species continue to thrive not just in Azorean waters, but elsewhere in the wider Atlantic Ocean.

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Thailand: Two full datasets, done

The team completed the last survey day on Monday. After the final data input and a refreshing shower in the afternoon, we sat around the dinner table for a final review. Absorbing everyone’s reports, I noticed that it all sounded as if we were talking about good old friends, commenting on their mood and behaviour amongst other things. The elephants have become much more than study objects and we all felt a bit sad when we had to say good-bye. On the very bright side, the team met this year’s goal of two full day datadsets for each individual and set the basis for further data collection – well done everyone!

Preliminary results after 107 survey hours between 08:00 and 16:00 on six survey days are:

  • 80 hours were spent on recording activity & behaviour
  • 16 hours looking at social relationships and closeness were recorded
  • 11 hours were spent on looking at their foraging preferences.
  • The majority of the elephant’s time was spent foraging (64%) followed by walking (12%), standing (7%), scratching and dusting (6%).
  • During the six survey days, they consumed 32 species from 18 different families with the majority of their diet being two species of bamboo (40%).
  • These preliminary data corroborate and resemble previous studies on wild Asian elephants.

More on all this will follow in the full expedition report, which we will tell you when it’s out (in a few months).

It was well before bedtime (around 20:00) when most of the team dinner to do some packing up or going straight to bed. It has been a tiring, but satisfying week. Thank you, everyone on the team, for your time, hard work, sweat for science and the enthusiasm you have put into the project. I very much enjoyed the time with you out in the forest and also watching you making yourselves at home within the local community. Your help and input is much appreciated and without you the project would simply not happen. Thanks to KSES, Kerri & Sombat, for organising everything on the ground, together with the local people and mahouts. Thanks, Talia, for sharing your knowledge and never getting tired of answering questions on the science or elephant anatomy 😉

Best wishes, I hope to see some of you again some day and I leave you with a collection of pictures from your time here.


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Thailand: Elephants all over the study site

The weather is hot during the day now. We like the sun, but we are sweating for science also. In the early mornings we walk by the local families huddled around their fireplaces. For most of us a long sleeve shirt is plenty.

We spent Friday & Saturday surveying in the afternoon, when all elephants have been very active. The two females and the toddler stuck together most of the time as usual and were followed by quite a few of us watching their every movement and recording activities and social behaviour every five minutes. Every elephant has their personal data logger and two more citizen scientists record association data of the herd. Until Saturday the males stayed away, roaming on their own but still followed by us citizen scientists.

We’ve been walking a lot up and down hills, along the main path, to the river, back into dense undergrowth, etc., etc.. With elephant toddler Gen Thong around it never gets boring, anyway. He likes testing the boundaries and is always up for game.

On Saturday & Sunday we found Boon Rott and Dodo together for the first time since we started our surveys. It was great to see them getting along well, Dodo following Boon Rott. He is the newest member of the herd and in the process of slowly settling in. It will take some more time for him to get his bearings and there is a lot to learn from his mate about his new environment. We saw them mud-bathing together and displaying social behaviour – they must like each other.

Apart from surveying elephants, some of the team took the chance to participate in community activities in the afternoon of our early survey days on Thursday and Sunday. Kunsang learnt some traditional weaving skills and her scarf should be finished by the time we leave. Others went for a Thai massage to the lower village to experience a blind man’s magic hands. He is said to be unique in what he is doing – I can certainly attest to this.

We have one survey day left tomorrow (Monday). Keep your fingers crossed that all five elephants will decide to spend some time in one group. That’s our hope at least, but they have their own minds 😉

Thailand: Collecting data

The team has completed the second elephant survey day. Introductions, presentations and lectures on the science, the history of the elephants to be surveyed, the equipment, safety and living with the local people were followed by a half day of practical training in the field on Tuesday. Data collection started on Wednesday and will continue until Monday, working towards the goal of completing two full sets of survey hours between 08:00 and 16:00. That means that the schedule will change from day to day, some days starting at 06:00 others at 08:00.

We left base at 08:00 on Wednesday for the 4.5 km hike to find the elephants. Too-Meh, the herd’s grandmother (57 years), her daughter Mae-Doom (23 years) and Gentong, Too-Meh’s grandson (6 years) were  together near the river. They foraged most of the time and took a bath in the river later on. Right at lunchtime, one of the male elephants, Boon-Rott (13 years) joined them, so that almost the whole team was reunited for lunch. The third male elephant, Dodo (Gentong’s brother, 13 years) decided to roam around solitary. A team of two citizen scientists followed him up and down steep hills and even further away from where the rest of the herd enjoyed each other’s company. It was a very good first survey day – easy for some, more challenging for others, though.

Today (Thursday) we went for the first out of two early shifts. Leaving base before sunrise, we very much enjoyed the 90 min walk along the river watching the sun come up and slowly dissolving the mist. For the first time during this week the sky was clear blue and the sun pushed the temperature up and over thirty degrees. Keep your fingers crossed that we won’t get any more rain!

We celebrated Neil’s birthday on Wednesday evening. Talia prepared a delicious homemade cake, which was presented after dinner. Thank you, Talia, for doing so, and thank you, Neil, for sharing it with us!

Thailand: Training

Everyone arrived safely at base today. Our team of ten citizen scientists from Brazil, Germany, the UK and US moved into their homes after lunch. Today was full-on introduction and training, stuffed with information before we go out tomorrow (Tuesday) morning for a practical data collection training walk.

Thailand: Ready to roll

I arrived at our base camp village of Ban Naklang on Saturday. Kerri, the founder of our partner organisation, and I had a meal at one of the homestay houses and continued to work on preparations, finalising the day-to-day schedule. Sunny weather was interrupted by heavy rain showers on Saturday and Sunday, but the weather forecast in predicting improving wheather conditions.

You will be picked up by Talia, our expedition scientist, tomorrow morning (Monday) at 8:00 at the Imperial Mae Ping Hotel, and Kerri and I look forward to meeting you at base.

I leave you with a few impressions from base and our jungle office, now all ready for your arrival…

Thailand: Preparations in Chiang Mai

I arrived in Chiang Mai on Thursday morning welcomed by sunny weather and temperatures around 30 C. I spent the day running around the old town doing some last minute shopping, passing food and other markets, enjoying the smells of Thai food prepared on the streets, as well as the cornucopia of strange-looking fruit, vegetables and flowers laid out on the tables.

The weather forecast says that the temperatures won’t change much over the next week or so, but there is a 50% chance of rain on the first couple of days of the expedition.

Kerri & Thalia, founders of Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary (our partner organisation on the ground) and I are also finalising the work schedule. Each day will include a walk of about 60 – 90 min to get to where the elephants are , as well as three hours of observation and data recording, interrupted by a one hour break. Please be prepared that the walk will include river crossings, some of them waist-high as Kerri told me this morning. So please make yourselves comfortable with the tought that you won’t be able to keep your shoes & trousers dry throughout the surveys. You might also want to consider bringing walking poles if you’re not comfortable enough with using the bamboo sticks that will be provided at base.

I will leave Chiang Mai tomorrow morning. You’ll hear from me again once I have arrived at the village. I shall then also let you have my local (emergency) phone number. Until then please e-mail the office in case of emergency or if need to get in touch.

I’ll leave you with some impressions of Chiang Mai…

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