Scientists from institutions like the UCMP travel all around the world and interact with many local communities. Last year the Berkeley Natural History Museums launched a project called the GK-12 Moorea fellowship to foster collaboration between graduate students and local communities in Moorea, French Polynesia. The program sends one graduate student to Moorea, a small island about 10km from Tahiti, to teach interactive science lessons in public schools and do ecological research. As the current GK-12 Moorea fellow, I am living in French Polynesia, teaching in a local middle school, and continuing my research on the evolution of monogamy in mantis shrimps.
For the past five weeks, I have been teaching lessons about marine biodiversity in two special education classrooms at the middle school in Pao Pao, Moorea. We kicked off the biodiversity unit with a field trip to a local public beach, where the students collected many animals from the shallow, sandy lagoon. The kids had a great time wading in the water, looking under rocks, and using a huge “Slurp Pump” to suck up critters that live in burrows. For many of these students, the lagoon is their backyard and they have been swimming, boating, and fishing in it since they were old enough to walk. Yet, I soon realized that for most of them every crab that they saw was just a crab and every snail was just a snail. They didn’t notice the differences between different species at all!
The students now have spent several lessons learning how to identify species and measure biodiversity using the collection that we made at the public beach. To measure the biodiversity of the public beach, the students are counting the number of species of mollusks (snails, clams, and octopuses) and decapods crustaceans (crabs, shrimps, lobsters). Although the students had an intuitive knowledge about how to classify organisms into mollusks and crustaceans, they were very skeptical when I showed them the thirteen different crab species we caught — they repeatedly told me “Toutes sont les crabbes” (They are all crabs)! I finally decided to try an impromptu activity — the students drew pictures of several different species of crustaceans and listed ways in which they differed. In doing this, they convinced themselves that each species was a morphologically unique group of organisms. The funny thing is that scientists at UC Berkeley argue all the time about the definition of “species” and whether “species” really exist. Species are notoriously hard to define — as Darwin said in On the Origin of Species, “No one definition has satisfied all naturalists; yet every naturalist knows vaguely what he means when he? speaks of a species.”
I love doing research on a small tropical island. In addition to the staff at Gump Station, I also have made friends with several Mooreans who live near sites where I collect mantis shrimps. One of my favorite research sites, Motu Tiahura, is frequented by picnicking families. The children often ask to see my animals. It is great fun to see their eyes widen as they look at my mantis shrimps swimming around in a falcon tube. I often explain my research to their parents — I study the evolution of monogamy in mantis shrimps. Monogamy is rare in crustaceans, but is common in the clade of mantis shrimps that I study. One of these monogamous species, Lysiosquillina maculata, or “varo” in Tahitian, is an expensive and overfished culinary delicacy here in French Polynesia. People here are fascinated to learn that the “varo” can live together in monogamous pairs for decades! They also love to check out my SCUBA diving setup and hear about my research methods.
During the height of my fieldwork, I dive for 3 or more hours a day surveying and collecting smaller mantis shrimp species. The backreef of the Moorean lagoon is a great place to dive. It’s clear, shallow waters abound with colorful fish and large coral heads. Since arriving in Moorea, I have learned all of the common fish and coral species so that I can do environmental surveys in areas where I collect mantis shrimps. As a naturalist, I love being able to name all of the species in the waters around me. Here in French Polynesia, many locals who fish for a living feel the same way. However, as in most developed countries, the younger generations are often less connected with nature. As I work and teach here in Moorea, I hope to open the eyes of my young students to the amazing marine ecosystem that surrounds them.