Friday, 19 September 2014

Assessing Complex Adaptive Systems: Resource-based livelihoods in the face of tourism development in the iconic Galapagos Islands - A comparative analysis


I have the great fortune of being from one of the most biodiverse places in the world. The rich cultural and natural diversity of my home country, Ecuador, has led me to pursue studies that integrate the natural and social sciences in order to conserve the environment, and at the same time promote social-economic development of the communities that depend on local natural resources. A degree in Ecotourism and a graduate degree in Ecology have helped me integrate human and natural systems and further my interests in understanding the different environmental challenges that Ecuador and Latin America are facing today from a holistic and integrative point of view.

I started my PhD studies in fall 2013 in the Department of Geography. I am student in the NEO program because my main research aims are focused in Latin America. The development of my PhD research proposal is a continuation of Masters thesis developed in San Cristobal Island in 2010. The research was focused on assessing the changes of the white fin fishery using an iconic species (Galapagos grouper, Micteroperca olfax) as an indicator of broader changes to the ecological community. Using fishers ecological knowledge and shifting baselines as the methodological approach, I assessed changes in the practice of this fishery and the status of the main fishing target species due to almost 70 years of continued fishing activity. Additionally, this study briefly explored social-ecological relationships amongst the fishermen household and their fishing activity.

Biodiversity conservation is important, especially in sensitive places as the Galapagos Islands. However, it creates potential conflicts (trade-offs) amongst stakeholders, most notably between external, science-based, educated and often wealthy elites, and local households and resource users.  The goal of conservation management research is to find win-win outcomes, but these are rare and may depend on the narrative selected to assess outcomes. Outcomes are influenced by power imbalances at many levels, from institutions at the global and national level, to the level of individuals within the community. In this regard, sustainable development implies both non-destructive use of environmental resources, and acceptable levels of social justice for stakeholders.

Marine protected areas (MPAs) have demonstrated their effectiveness as a tool to preserve natural resources; however, their management and enforcement policies have substantial socio-cultural impacts, which have produced poor local consensus, and in some cases, hostility among social groups. Although effective for conservation purposes, this management tool has shown examples of unequal access of natural resources by different economic sectors within the protected area. For instance, the inherent economic advantages enjoyed by the tourism industry have marginalized the fishery and agricultural sector in terms of access and control of some MPAs.

Tourism, and the income it generates, is cited as an option that can support sustainable development in biodiversity conservation sites. It can bridge opposing expectations because, in theory, it gives market value to biodiversity resources and so, on the one hand, should ensure their protection, and on the other, should provide substitutes for other local livelihoods. There are clearly inherent contradictions in this approach. Most notably, the idea of increasing the number of guests and providing improved infrastructure and services for them in areas whose value derives precisely from the lack of prior exposure and development. In addition,  the idea that providing local residents with new livelihood options that are necessarily based on limiting flexibility in exploiting environmental resources, will not eventually stimulate rising expectations and place new demands on the protected resource base. 

Galapagos Islands are unique, not only in the geographic and ecological characteristics, but also by virtue of their status as a focus of conservation management. The value of the biodiversity resource is unquestioned, the importance of tourism as a way of monetizing that value is well advanced, and the stresses arising from the inherent paradoxes of this approach are evident as human population levels rise, tourist infrastructure increases, and the ecological impacts of tourism industry intensify. Moreover, the expectations of local populations continue to evolve, both with respect to individual livelihood expectations and to the understanding of the nature and importance of decision-making processes. Local rights, aspirations, capabilities and demands are essential elements of the islands ecosystems.

My research considers both social and ecological indicators to compare three populated islands with respect to drivers and impacts of environmental change, and their effects on the interactions amongst stakeholders. The objective is to provide an understanding of the Galapagos system. The reason for attempting to replicate the assessment in the three islands is that certain factors are held constant across the islands (notably national and international actors and management interventions and legal frameworks), while other factors (notably population size, history, and livelihood options) are different. This comparison will allow some control of variables that influence the effectiveness of local engagement in conservation, tourism, resource exploitation, and decision-making.

Identifying the socio-cultural, economic, and political differences of the three islands in relation to resource-based livelihoods in the face of tourism development will contribute to the understanding of the islands as subsystems, and advance the knowledge of the overall Galapagos social-ecological system. Given the intense effort that has gone into developing a management structure for this archipelago, it is expected that identifying differences in outcomes amongst the islands will help provide insights for its adaptive management, and sustainable development. Finally, considering the intense effort that has gone into developing the management structures in the Galapagos, it is expected that evidence of successes and failures in their management will provide valuable information for other biodiversity conservation initiatives in other parts of the world. 

Burbano, D.V. 2011. Shifting baselines en la pesca blanca  de Galápagos: relaciones socio-ecológicas en ambientes marinos. Ms.c. Thesis Ecology. Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Ecuador.
Burbano, D.V., C.F. Mena, P. Guarderas, L. Vinueza, and G. Reck. 2014. Shifting baselines in the Galapagos white fin fishery: Using fishers anecdotes to reassess fisheries management. The case of the Galapagos grouper. In: J. Denkinger and L. Vinueza (eds.) The Galapagos Marine Reserve: A dynamic social-ecological system. Social and Ecological Sustainability in the Galapagos Islands. Springer Science+Business Media, New York.

Photos: Alfonso Tandazo, Diana Burbano

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

An Introduction...

Unlike many of the posts of NEO past, I am a new student in the NEO program, and beginning my Masters in Biology in the fall of 2014. While my research scope is still being defined, I can provide a brief overview of the projected work and its relevance.

In 2011 the world’s largest roller-compacted concrete arch-gravity dam completed construction and was put in operation on the Changuinola River in Bocas del Toro province, Panama. The dam is under the operation and ownership of AES Changuinola, a subsidiary of AES Corporation. As a result of the dam operation, more than 1000 people, including the indigenous Ngäbe people, were re-settled. The dam itself is located inside a protected forest area, the Bosque Protector de Palo Seco (BPPS), and while residents were relocated, they were allowed to remain within the BPPS (AES Changuinola, 2013).

Figure 1 Google Earth view of the research area, and the relative locations of the Changuinola I dam, and the manatee habitat.

As a result, the AES Changuinola I Dam has been the topic of controversy from indigenous rights and conservation groups (Kennedy, 2012; Kennedy, 2014). This dam is not alone in its infamy, as hydroelectric dams have been simultaneously lauded as social, environmental and economic benefactors and antagonists alike. The cross-disciplinary nature of hydraulic dams and their impact presents a complex problem for researchers to tackle.

I will be working with Dr. Brian Leung and Dr. Hector Guzman, and we will be evaluating the impacts of the Changuinola I Dam on the local watershed and human and manatee population. The exact parameters that will be evaluated have yet to be entirely fleshed out, but this will hopefully become clearer as we gather data. Fortunately, we have the support of AES Changuinola, government officials and the local environmental authority (ANAM).

The project is divided into three main components; the first is to establish the current state of the river, using the information that is publicly available (e.g. land use, rainfall, soil type, land slope, etc.) and the Environmental Impact Assessment conducted prior to construction. Any information that can be provided on the relocation and/ or consultations that occurred with the local communities will also be collected. We hope to create a snapshot of the watershed prior to the dam construction, and at present by comparing historical remote sensing imagery. The second step of our research will be to develop a watershed model of the Changuinola River using the Soil and Water Assessment Tool. The models developed will inform the last phase of the project, which is a manatee population model. This last analysis will involve the monitoring of the local manatee population and habitat to establish the effects of modifying the watershed.

While my thesis is, quite evidently, in the preliminary stages, I am very excited to get started and to be a part of the NEO program.

Here’s a brief introduction to my own background: I grew up (mostly) in Kingston, Ontario. I moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia at the age of 18 to attend Dalhousie University. I also happened to be in the first year of their new College of Sustainability program. My degree morphed into a combined honours degree in Environment, Sustainability and Society and Biology. A key component of my undergrad was a 6-month exchange trip I did to Wellington, New Zealand in my third year. It was an amazing experience to really throw myself into another country and its culture.

When my feet touched back on Canadian soil, I was ready to tackle my fourth year. I wrote my honours thesis on the effects of a water-monitoring program in First Nations communities in Atlantic Canada. It was this work in the Centre for Water Resources Studies in 2013 that lead to my employment there after graduation. I learned a great deal at the Centre, though my time there has drawn to a close as I prepare for my upcoming move (and next great adventure!) to Montreal at the end of the month.



Sunday, 3 August 2014

Connecting the Dots

As my PhD is wrapping up, I've been ruminating on what it means to be a student in the NEO program. The official website highlights the collaboration between McGill and STRI, the opportunities students will have to work with researchers from both institutions, and the goal to “facilitate a broader understanding of tropical environmental issues and the development of skills relevant to working in the tropics”. The greatest appeal of the program for me has always been the combination of science and humanities that has formed the core of the NEO program since its inception, mainly through the NEO courses. However, my research focus is limited to biology, so how do I fit into NEO?

I work with a group of marine snails, the calpytraeids, perhaps better known to the world as slipper limpets. If you’ve spent time on the east coast of North America or the north coast of Europe where it is invasive, you’ve probably seen shells of the most famous species in the group, Crepidula fornicata, washed up on the beach. The shells look a bit like slippers when turned upside-down, hence the common name. What attracted me in the group was the diversity of developmental types. Calyptraeids are a relatively big family, and have at least five different ways of going from egg to juvenile. I’m working on what is called direct development with nutritive embryos. That means that the majority of embryos produced by a female don’t actually finish their development, but are ingested by their normal siblings as they grow - a form of cannibalism. Interestingly, in the species that I study, all embryos look more or less the same until about a third of the way through their development. After that point, most embryos stop growing and are eaten. Only a small fraction will crawl out of their capsules as juveniles. It’s a bit like “The Hunger Games”, but with snails. I am studying what influences the developmental decision between becoming either a normal embryo or a food embryo, and how this mode of development may have evolved. 

Crepidula lessoni, one of the many species of slipper limpets found in Panama.

So what does that have to do with the goals of the NEO program? How does that relate to environmental problems facing Latin America today? On the surface, it wouldn’t appear to be a close fit. However, I am also studying these marine snails in the context of ecological evolutionary developmental biology, also known as eco-evo-devo. This is an emerging field that aims to understand how the environment, genes and development interact to produce changes in organisms through time. It is by nature an interdisciplinary field. And this is how I feel that my project fits into NEO. My research aims to understand the evolution of development by looking at several levels of biological organization; from genetic control and expression patterns, to environmental and seasonal influences on development, and the role of maternal and sibling interactions on individual embryos. This multi-level approach fits very well with the goals of NEO. After all, the ideals of the program are to understand environmental issues by integrating natural and social sciences in the tropics. On that front, my research is not so far outside of the goals of the program.

Locals looking for oysters while I look for snails in Veracuz, Panama.

Similar to understanding the evolution of development, understanding environmental issues requires having a handle on the complex interactions that lead to their production. NEO students are trained in integrating the multiple aspects of environmental issues, making this one of the most important aspects of NEO, even for those of us who are not looking directly at how we humans interact with our environment. The skills that I am using to do my research are transferrable to any number of complex issues facing the world today, and not just snail evolution!

* for more information about eco-evo-devo, check out the Abouheif lab website.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Evolution Bucket List: alpha 1

(This is a repost from

Humans have a penchant for making “best of” (Top 10, Top 5, anything from Buzzfeed, ...) lists. David Letterman’s Top 10 lists are, of course, a long-standing classic. Many magazines and websites have Best Of lists for the year: best photos, best movies, etc. And now we have “best of” YouTube collections for pretty much anything that might interest you. It seems to be human nature to make such lists – although the characters in the movie High Fidelity argue it is a tendency more common or more enhanced in men than women.

The ultimate best-of lists are Bucket Lists – the things you need to see/do before you die. Presumably these are the 100 (or whatever number of) things that would enrich your life experience more than any other. The things that – if you didn’t do them – would have you looking back from the grave and thinking “Damn, I never went cave diving” or “Why didn’t I ever see a Broadway Play?” or whatever. Sometimes we see global bucket lists presumably applicable to all humanity (or perhaps the “average” human), but other times we see more targeted Bucket Lists for things such as Sporting Events, Fishing, Skiing, Reading, Dining, Sex, and so on. This got me to thinking: what would be an Evolution Bucket List? A Google search suggests no such list exists and so I figure we should develop one.

I will start the ball rolling with some initial ideas. I hope folks will suggest additional options in the comments. Perhaps with a few versions of the list batted around, we can develop the optimal set. What should be on such a list? Several categories stand out. (1) Locations where organisms are particularly special, such as Galápagos. (2) Particular organisms of evolutionary significance or novelty, such as the platypus. (3) Locations of historical/contemporary importance to the study of evolution, such as Darwin’s home. (4) Amazing interactions between organisms, such honey guides and honey badgers or the parasitic isopod that replaces the tongue of some marine fish. (5) Specific dramatic or important fossils or fossil sites, such as the Burgess Shale. So I will start our group effort by suggesting some items for the Evolution Bucket List: some I have already experienced, some I expect to experience, and some that would be great to experience but that I probably never will. 

Things already in my bucket

1. Galápagos Islands. For me, Galápagos is the single most iconic and inspirational location for someone interested in evolution. Not only did it inspire Darwin and many evolutionary biologists since, but it is home to some of the world’s most unique and interesting organisms: marine iguanasDarwin’s finches, flightless cormorants, tropical penguins, and many others. Of course, we could easily list each of these organisms as separate items on the bucket list but – given that one can knock all of them off in a relatively short time in a relatively small area – I think they are better encompassed as a location. I have been fortunate enough to visit Galápagos many times, although I still haven’t seen a flightless cormorant. BLOG POST

Darwin called them "imps of darkness."
2. Down, EnglandNo location was more instrumental in the development and exposition of Darwin’s theory. It was here that Darwin did nearly all of the work that led us to our modern understanding of life on earth and how it came to be. The most obvious thing to see is Down House (especially his study) and its grounds (especially the Sandwalk). However, what was even more exciting for me was Darwin’s Pub. BLOG POST

Having a pint in Darwin's Pub.
3. ArchaeopteryxDiscovered soon after Darwin published his magnum opus, Archaeopteryx made flesh the intermediate forms between extant groups (birds and reptiles) and was thus a crucial contributor to acceptance of Darwin’s theory. Simply put, Archaeopteryx is the most famous fossil in the world: it is even in MS Word’s spell-check dictionary which, I have just discovered, knows how to spell it better than me. It is also the world’s most beautiful fossil – and spectacular versions can be seen in many museums. I have seen them in the Berlin Natural History Museum and the British Natural History Museum.

The Berlin Archaeopteryx
4. OilbirdsOne of the most exciting things for an evolutionary biologist is evolutionary novelties – species that just stick out in ways that set them apart from even the most closely related species. That is, they are the sorts of species that might not be imaginable if they didn’t actually exist. Oilbirds are my current favorite. They nest in caves and feed on fruit at night, and they echolocate! They are also huge outliers on the evolutionary tree of birds. And they live in spectacular settings in tropical forests. I have seen them in Trinidad both in caves and clicking their way along river corridors at night. BLOG POST

Me shooting pictures of oilbirds. (Photo by Felipe Perez-Jvostov)
5. Carnivorous plantsI was sorely tempted to list another cool animal (mudskippers or leafcutter ants) but I suppose plants might also be important and interesting – at least to some. Being an animal guy, the plants that are most fascinating to me are the ones that seem almost like animals – the predatory plants. Most iconically, this category (actually several independent evolutionary lineages) jncludes pitcher plants, sundews, and Venus flytraps. It is one of life’s guilty pleasure, at least for kids, to catch and “feed” insects to these plants. And, of course, it helps that Darwin was a big fan, even writing a book about them. Indeed, various carnivorous plants are featured to this day in the greenhouse at Down House (PHOTO).

Sundew in British Columbia.

Things reasonably likely to end up in my bucket

6. MadagascarAnother evolutionary marvel. A place, like Galapagos or New Zealand, long cut off from the rest of the world and so able to embark on an independent evolutionary trajectory. In the case of Madagascar, what I would most like to see are lots of lemurs: ring-tailed lemurs, mouse lemurs, and – most importantly – aye-ayes. Surely the aye-aye is one of the most bizarre and amazing mammals in existence – my kids think so anyway. Check out this awesome video True Facts about the Aye-Aye (3.5 million views and counting).

7. Burgess ShaleOne of the most important fossil finds was in the Canadian Rockies where, 500 million years ago, a large mudslide covered an almost intact fauna from the Cambrian Explosion, a period during which animal life exploded in diversity. This site has told us most of what we know about this time, half a billion years age. In fact, I am shocked that I have not already been to the Burgess Shale, given that I grew up only a few hours away (What the hell were my parents thinking not taking me there?) and I still drive through the area all the time. You can even get a guided tour. What could be simpler? Surely, I will soon check it off.

8. Chimpanzees – in the wildOur closest relative, and popularly consider 95+% genetically similar to us – to me! I am captivated watching them in any of the countless BBC videos. It is like a window into the past, in the sense that our common ancestor probably looked a lot more like a chimp than a human. I am pretty confident I will soon knock this one off too, given that I have collaborators working in Kibale National Park, Uganda, where chimpanzees are abundant and easily seen. Yet another reason to do some work there.

9. Platypus – in the wildOK, I suppose some other monotreme, like the echidna, would do in a pinch but the platypus just seems so much more bizarre. In fact, it bedeviled scientists for almost a century, as playfully described in the book titled, wait for it… Platypus. Of course, I envision my encounter will be like the one in David Attenborough’s Life of Mammals – me sitting peacefully on the edge of a pool while a platypus swims playfully (or at least indifferently) about my feet in crystal-clear water. I have already been to Australia but didn’t seek out a platypus at the time, dammit. Yet I will surely be back to Australia soon. In the meantime, I will have to be satisfied with the dusty old male platypus moldering away in the basement of the Redpath Museum. Not quite the same, but inspirational nonetheless.

10. Flying herpsThey don’t really fly, of course: flying has evolved only four times (bats, birds, insects, pterosaurs), but these gliders can be just as amazing. I grew up watching flying squirrels, which were cool enough, but what about flying snakes (VIDEO), flying lizards (VIDEO), or flying frogs (VIDEO)? The snakes can dramatically change direction in mid-air. The lizards extend their ribs until they look like a kite. The frogs were described by Alfred Russell Wallace – the co-discover of natural selection.

Things with varying degrees of unlikeness.

11. Bolas spider in actionLooks like a bird turd. Gives off a moth pheromone. Spins a ball of sticky web on a string and swings it around to catch sexed-up moths in flight (VIDEO). This sight should be the most accessible of these relatively inaccessible bucket list options, given that bolas spiders are widespread, seemingly even near my house. I just don’t know where or how to start looking. (OK. so maybe this one actually is achievable and I should have picked some rarer but equally cool spider.)

Many spiders could make the list. 
How cool is this crab spider waiting for dinner to fly up?
12. Antarctic breeding coloniesAlbatrosses. Elephant seals. Penguins. By the millions. South Georgia Island. The Kerguelen Islands. One of life’s great spectacles. Ironically, I once passed up a chance to go to the Kerguelen Islands. I probably won’t get another.

Penguin (check - Galapagos), Elephant Seal (check - California). Millions of each on a beach in (or near) Antarctica (pending).
13. Killer whales swimming onto the beach to get at sea lionsI must have watched videos of this behavior hundreds of times – truly amazing stuff. Here is one of those VIDEOS – 12 million views. In reality, this spectacle should be reasonably accessible (at least in relation to those that follow) but I am betting the chances are still remote because it happens in only a few places (Península Valdés, Argentina) for only part of the year (Feb–Apr – and episodically even then) and access seems to be strictly controlled.

Just need to get this orca and this sea lion on the beach in the same picture!
14. Hydrothermal vent communitiesEntire communities that thrive independently of energy from the sun. First seen in 1979, these communities of tube worms, crabs, fish, and other critters were too bizarre and unpredicted to be believed – except that we could actually see them on VIDEO. For this I just need a submarine.

15. TylacineIf one is to see a cool marsupial, one couldn’t do better than a Thylacine – the Tasmanian Tiger, in colloquial terms. OK, I know you’re saying well, duh, it’s extinct. But not everyone is convincedand a few of these critters might still be hanging out in the woods of Tasmania. To give a hint of what you might see, check out this chilling VIDEO of the last one alive in a zoo – viewed more than 2 million times. For this I might just need a time machine.

I would trade several thousand kangaroos for one (OK, maybe two) thylacines.

So, there’s my first attempt at an alpha version of an Evolution Bucket List. Please send me some new ideas so we can make a definitive list. If you have actually knocked off the item, then a tiny description like those above would be great – with a video or picture, ideally one you took yourself.

Have at ’er.