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Biology fellows return from three-week research trip on San Salvador Island

RELEASED: July 27, 2010

UW-Eau Claire seniors Jake Ring and Otto Renner coordinate a snorkel outing to teach school children about coral reef preservation.

EAU CLAIRE — The first grantees of a new research program at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire have returned from a three-week research trip on San Salvador Island, Bahamas.

The trip was led by Dr. David Lonzarich, professor of biology, and included research on the fish and plants associated with the inland lakes of the island and the impact of coral reef health and ecology on fish distribution. He was accompanied by senior biology majors Jake Ring, Manitowoc, and Otto Renner, Green Bay, who also had the opportunity to interact with scientists from around the United States and Great Britain during their stay.

"Although it might seem that we were in paradise, life on the island was hot, with a heat index often above 110 degrees, and it was buggy and rustic," Lonzarich said, noting that caves and lakes in the area can only be found using a machete. "We spent hours hiking through scrubby, dry forests to access the ponds we studied."

The group stayed at the Gerace Research Center, a former U.S. naval installation. For more than 30 years, the center has provided a base of operations for students and researchers to study tropical marine biology, geology and archaeology on the island, which has unique history, ecology and hypersaline lakes. The area is also unspoiled by human development, with only one resort from which vacationers typically do not stray.

According to Lonzarich, a group of lake fish species have evolved on the island from an ancestral form in less than 6,000 years. There are some organisms on the islands that are either very rare or not found anywhere else due to the varied physical and chemical nature of the ponds. These include the pupfish species, some jellyfish and stromatolites, fossil-like formations that provide a biological record of ancient life.

"In some important respects, they are like Darwin's Galapagos Islands," Lonzarich said. "In these ponds are some pretty remarkable life forms. In my opinion, they are not only worth studying, they are also worth preserving."

The group spent time educating youth on the value of and need to conserve the environments of the island. They gave presentations based on what they learned, and took the students on a snorkel tour of a nearby reef. Additionally, the fellows will present their outcomes at UW-Eau Claire's Student Research Day and possibly at a UW System research symposium.

"It is exciting to work on multiple projects, learning about these unique ecosystems," Ring said. "In addition to this we were constantly learning about the area's natural history, something San Salvador has a great deal of. The things I've learned I will take with me for the rest of my life."

The newly created Student-Faculty International Fellows Program for Research, Service, and Creative Activity funds such field research conducted in conjunction with a service-learning experience. It contributes to UW-Eau Claire's commitment to providing accessible and affordable global and intercultural immersion experiences for all students.

"It is hard for us in Wisconsin to appreciate just how serious are the environmental implications of human activities, such as invasive species, over-harvesting, habitat loss and pollution," Lonzarich said. "San Salvador Island has all of these things and together they are contributing to the loss of one of the world's most sensitive and important ecosystems — coral reefs.

"Students hear about such things in the classroom, but trips like this allow them to appreciate that conservation issues have a human dimension, and cannot be solved by science alone."

The international fellows program was conceived jointly by the Center for International Education, the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs and the Center for Service-Learning and is funded by differential tuition and the Blugold Commitment. UW-Eau Claire has been recognized for providing invaluable collaborative research experiences to undergraduate students.

For more information, contact Dr. David Lonzarich at



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