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Problems Without Passports: Scientific Research Diving at USC Dornsife–Reflections at the Edge of the Pacific Ocean

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Since arriving in the Republic of Palau, we have spent a lot of time reflecting on our experiences on Guam (in which the environmental situation is dire). Many of the native forest animals on that island such as the Mariana fruit bat, Kingfisher and the Guam Rail (aka ko’ko’) are endangered, and in some cases, functionally extinct. As mentioned in an earlier post, such decreases are attributed in part to habitat loss, land development and the imminent buildup of military activities. 

Pictured: Dave Ginsburg makes friends with one of the abundant Mariana fruit bats on Palau. Photo by Austin Hay.


At first glance, this is not the case in Palau—the forest animals that we have encountered thus far are not only common, but are quite abundant. For example, on a jungle river excursion in the Ngerdoch Catchment, Palau’s second largest watershed, we easily spotted both Palauan fruit bats and Kingfishers flying among the trees. Additionally, while visiting the Odalmelech Stone Faces in Melekeok Municipality, Buff-Banded Rails, similar to ko’ko’s of Guam, darted around our feet during our lunch break amongst the ancient ruins. 

Left: Buff-Banded Rails (adult and chick shown) greeted us on our first lunch in Palau. Photo by Austin Hay.

Although the threat of rampant development, habitat loss and destruction of ecosystem services is nowhere near the levels seen in other parts of Micronesia, Palauans are increasingly alarmed at the current state of their marine and terrestrial environments. Yet, while internationally recognized as a hotspot of biodiversity, few long-term, comprehensive scientific studies have quantified the total species richness in and around the Palauan archipelago.

Right: Annotated aerial photograph of Ngederrak Reef Marine Protected Area. Sample sites highlighted on figure. Figure by Pat Collins.

As part of our course experience, students and faculty are participating in an intensive two-day survey of Ngederrak Reef Marine Protected Area (MPA), which is one of 6 different MPAs in the Koror State region. Closed to all recreational and fishing activities since 2005, this site (spread out across ~6 km2) was historically fished for a variety of high-value subsistence and commercial invertebrates, fishes and even the occasional dugong—currently, Palau’s most endangered animal. 

Working closely with Ilebrang Olkeriil, director of Koror State’s Department of Conservation and Law Enforcement, and biologist Paul Collins from the Coral Reef Research Foundation, our team has conducted underwater surveys that will be used to help design management and conservation strategies to further protect this area.

Left: USC students surveying in Ngederrak Reef Marine Protected Area. Photo by Jim Haw.

This is a tremendous opportunity for our students who, as part of our curricula, are trained to identify Micronesian indicator species (e.g., fish, invertebrates, sea grasses), and will greatly benefit from working in real-time with local resource managers in the field.  

Over the last several years, the USC Dornsife Environmental Studies Program has made substantial use of ‘study abroad’ field courses, which subsequently have become an integral component of our curricula. Such courses provide a real-world learning experience geared towards fostering future career choices and graduate decisions. We envision the current field program will play a significant role in establishing a long-term relationship amongst Koror State Conservation, local scientists and other resource management officials.

About the Author: Dr. David Ginsburg is a marine biologist and lecturer in the Environmental Studies Program at USC Dornsife. He earned his master’s degree from the University of Guam and has conducted scientific diving in both Guam and Palau for a number of years. His scientific diving experience includes under-ice specimen collection in Antarctica.

Editor’s note: Scientific Research Diving at USC Dornsife is offered as part of an experiential summer program offered to undergraduate students of the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. This four-week course takes place on location at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island and throughout Micronesia. Students investigate important environmental issues such as ecologically sustainable development, fisheries management, protected-area planning and assessment, and human health issues. During the course of the program, the 24-student team will dive and collect data to support conservation and management strategies to protect the fragile coral reefs of Guam, Palau and other Micronesian islands.

Instructors for the course include Jim Haw, Director of the Environmental Studies Program in USC Dornsife, Environmental Studies Lecturer Dave Ginsburg, SCUBA instructor and volunteer in the USC Scientific Diving Program Tom Carr and USC Dive Safety Officer Gerry Smith of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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