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LEWISBURG, Pa. — Snorkeling in Savannah Bay off the coast of Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands, Bucknell University economics major Alison Bianco, Class of '13, noticed a school of small yellow fish containing one that looked a little different: It had a blue head and black-and-white stripes, and it appeared to be the leader.
"Is that one the mom?" Bianco asked Elizabeth Capaldi, associate professor of biology and animal behavior.
"No, that's the blue-headed wrasse," said Capaldi. "Those are the sequential hermaphrodites I was telling you about. That one's the male — if you took it away, one of the females would assume the body plan and gonads of the male."
"Wow," said Bianco, "'Finding Nemo' really messed me up."
Bianco was one of 28 students that traveled to the Caribbean with Professor Capaldi and Mitch Chernin, professor of biology, for two weeks this summer for Tropical Marine Biology, a course designed to fill a life sciences requirement for non-biology majors. The course's primary objective is to give students an appreciation of the complex interactions of the organisms in a coral reef, including the coral, fish and algae, said Capaldi.
The course begins on campus, where Chernin and Capaldi teach students how to keep field journals — descriptions of the field sites; reports on weather, water and sky conditions; data on the corals, fish and algae they see; and personal narratives about their impressions and experiences.
The group spent the first half of the course in the U.S. Virgin Islands at Cinnamon Bay, St. John, where they snorkeled among different types of reefs for about five hours a day. The students took notes on underwater slates, later transferring the data and observations into their field journals.
"I was surprised at how quickly I caught on to identifying the organisms on the reef," said Carleton Knisely, a mechanical engineering major in the Class of '13. "Being in the water so much with all the plants and animals made me learn them much more quickly than I would have from a textbook or normal lecture."
Each night, Capaldi gave "reef chats" focusing on the nature and practice of science and providing more information on the organisms the students had seen that day. "We talked about what's unique about corals, starfish, sea cucumbers — and that encourages the students the next day look for those things," said Capaldi.
Given the fragile state of the coral reefs in the Caribbean, the course also helps build awareness among students of the ecological stressors present there, said Chernin. "Because of global warming, the shallow reefs may die in a mere matter of decades," he said, noting significant deterioration in Savannah Bay, where the class spent the second week of the course.
Capaldi witnessed a different threat to the ecosystem: On a shallow dive, she saw a lionfish — an invasive species endemic to the Pacific Ocean. She said it's a voracious predator of tropical coral reef fish and has venom that's toxic to humans. It has no predators in the Caribbean ecosystem.
Alison Bianco heard from a taxi cab driver about how new resorts and an influx of residents from the United States have interfered with efforts to protect the reefs. The driver told her a reduced fish population makes it difficult for many to make a living. "In class, we'd been told that the reef situation was dire, yet hearing firsthand how this has affected the lifestyle of individuals and has taken a toll on the culture of the island made this concern very real to me," said Bianco.
For their culminating project for the course, students create a three-dimensional map of a smaller section of a reef, or a reef patch, said Chernin. "Once they get the structural component down and all the organisms, it's a really great opportunity for them to take a look at behavior," he said. "Do they see the fish there in the morning? Do they see them again in the afternoon? When it's rough? When it's calm?"
Bianco said the course completely changed her perspective on science. "It interested me in the field of biology because it was a practical application and a hands-on experience," she said. "I have to chuckle at some of my enthusiastic confessions in my journal, like 'They were the most magnificent corky sea fingers [a type of coral] I had ever seen,' and 'I am an algae girl.'"
"This is our shot at building some biological awareness among people who are going to work in finance, management, political science or government," said Capaldi, "and to whet their appetite as to how they should care about the world around them."
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