ASU students pursue biodiversity solutions in the global south

Two dolphins jumping through waves in the oceanBiodiversity describes the plethora of different species on the Earth, as well as the ecosystems that they create and sustain. Humans couldn’t survive without a biodiverse planet, simply because the ecosystems we rely on only function due to the interactions of all these different species. In many cases, we don’t know exactly how a single species fits into the web of ecosystem functions; we do know that once a species goes extinct, there’s no going back. The Center for Biodiversity Outcomes (CBO) is one of Arizona State University’s newest endeavors to conserve biodiversity around the world, through research, natural resource management and education. In terms of education, the center is one of several ASU programs now working with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to connect student researchers with partners in the global south to address conservation challenges. “We are delighted to collaborate with the USAID program to provide our students with hands-on practical conservation development research,” says CBO director Leah Gerber. ASU is one of six U.S. universities participating in USAID’s Research and Innovation Fellowship program, which connects eligible scholars to research opportunities in 35 partner countries. The ASU branch of the program is the Global Development Research (GDR) Program, and students from all disciplines are free to search through a catalogue of research opportunities offered by partner institutions in the global south. This year, ASU has 18 students who have received fellowships with the GDR Program, and six of them are planning to work on projects dealing with biodiversity issues. Among  them is Marielle Abalo, who is working directly with the CBO. Abalo is an ASU PhD student at in the School of Life Sciences’ Biology and Society program, whose research focuses on spatial analysis and human-environment dynamics. “I’ve been interested in this sort of thing pretty much since I’ve been born,” Abalo says. She’s always liked animals but never settled on a particular favorite, interested in one species and then jumping to the next. “The idea is that I could see how all these different species were potentially linked, which made them all interesting to me.” That’s one of the reasons she chose to focus on specific themes within biodiversity for her graduate research. “[It] gets at the complexity of nature,” she says. Gerber is her advisor at ASU and introduced her to the GDR opportunity. Both she and the university as a whole were very supportive of Abalo’s interest in the fellowship, and worked with her to establish a timeline that would still allow her to meet the program requirements in a timely fashion. Through the program’s catalog of research opportunities, Abalo was able to find a perfect fit for her interests: studying river and coastal dolphins in Brazil. Through her research, Abalo plans to develop a socio-ecological approach to conserving the species. The dolphins “act as nutrient transports between systems,” Abalo says. For instance, they eat fish in one area and, after digesting them, deposit the nutrients in another. This makes them an important “middle man” in aquatic ecosystems. They also help to regulate fish stocks and maintain overall ecological system health by keeping prey populations in check. There are two different dolphins Abalo will be studying: the Franciscana dolphin (Pontoporia blainvillei) and the Tucuxi, with the Tucuxi now considered to actually be two separate yet distinct species (Sotalia fluviatilis and Sotalia guianensis). The Franciscana, also known by the name La Plata dolphin, is found along the central Atlantic coast of South America. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the dolphin faces multiple threats, including dying from getting caught in fishing nets, pollution, and habitat degradation. It’s listed as vulnerable. The riverine Tucuxi (S. fluviatilis) is found in rivers in the Amazon, while the marine Tucuxi (S. guianensis) is found along coasts and in estuaries along South and Central America and the Caribbean. Both face threats similar to those faced by the Franciscana, although they have not been studied enough to be formally classified by the IUCN. Abalo’s research will be dually funded by the Brazilian government and USAID, and she will be hosted by the Grupo de Estudios de Mamiferos Aquaticos and the Universidade de Rio Grande do Sul, as well as the Universidade de Rio de Janeiro. She hopes to stay in the country for around a year so she can learn Portuguese and really get a feel for the local culture. “A big part of my research has to do with local relationships and trying to get to know how the local fishermen interact with their environment,” says Abalo. “I think a lot of that is based on cultural norms and that’s something you can’t come in and do and just leave; you kind of have to be embedded in some ways and become a familiar face.” Along with her passion for conservation work, Abalo is also excited to be going to Brazil for these and other cultural experiences. Outside of Africa, Brazil is the country with  the largest overall population percentage of people of African descent. Abalo grew up in West Africa and has family all over the world, so she’s interested in getting to know the Afro-Latino diaspora and connecting with that portion of her identity, she says. Doing so will not only be personally fulfilling, it will also take her closer to her some of her long-term research goals, one of which is to work on conservation in Africa. Another goal she’s hoping to further during her project is to help draw more minorities into conservation research, such as women of Afro-descent. “A big part of what USAID is trying to do is to foster international collaborations, and personally what I would love to be able to do, as a minority in the field even in the U.S. here, is to be able to draw other minorities in Brazil into the work of conservation,” she says. “That would be a really big mark of success for me, just being out there and being visible and working with the other populations of African descent and maybe encouraging them also to be present [in research].” Another biodiversity-focused GDR project that will be going on in Brazil aims to understand the emergence of mechanisms for the payment for environmental services for climate change mitigation and biodiversity conservation in the Amazon. Specifically, the project will focus on the ongoing implementation of reduced emissions from deforestation and the environmental reserve quotas market. The project will be carried out in partnership with the Laboratorio de Gestão de Serviços Ambientais at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais. The remaining four biodiversity-focused GDR projects will be based in Panama City, Panama, and hosted by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. The scholars conducting these projects are all PhD students in the School of Life Sciences studying animal behavior and environmental science, though each of their projects examines a unique facet of biodiversity in the area. Andrew Burchill will be studying how ghost crabs might be useful as ecological indicators for the level of human disturbances affecting Panama’s sandy beaches, while Tyler Murdock will be doing research on Panamanian ants. Meghan Duell will also be looking at insects. She’ll be examining insects, such as bees, as bioindicators for how climate change is affecting the success of pollinators in the tropics. Finally Edward Gilbert is planning to develop software on biodiversity that can help integrate data from multiple scientists. Each project lasts for a number of months although the exact time period varies with the project. Along with the rest of the GDR scholars, these students were chosen for their ability and willingness to become collaborative, global citizens and advance innovative research in their chosen field. Because biodiversity is a global problem involving many stakeholders, these students are ideally placed to begin building the kinds of multinational, interdisciplinary partnerships needed to address the growing biodiversity crisis around the world.