Directed Research: The Midden Myth!

After finishing our Resource Management, Marine Ecology, and Environmental Policy courses, we have a few weeks set aside to focus completely on our directed research projects. The 34 of us divide up into several groups, all focusing on different scientific questions relevant to South Caicos. Some groups are focusing on coral, others on fish. New coral diseases and other parasites are even being seen and classified for the first time here. I have the pleasure of conducting a unique project with queen conch, Lobatus gigas.

We counted over 300 of queen conch in our experiment! This is a picture of of a younger one, lacking a fully developed lip.
You might recognize the queen conch by the beautiful shell, often purchased by tourists.

Queen conch are a commonly fished mollusk on South Caicos, making them an important export and essential aspect of the country’s economy. Understanding how queen conch react to the historical fishing habits of the locals is a challenge surrounded by superstitions and various myths. Our project, titled “The midden myth: The behavioral response of queen conch (Lobatus gigas) to shell middens,” addresses one of these myths. When fishermen catch the conch, they typically “knock” them, removing the meat from the shell to ease the shipment process on their small boats. Typically, the shells are discarded in piles on the ocean floor, which are called “middens.” We hypothesize that queen conch actively move away from the presence of a freshly knocked midden pile. Would you want to sleep in a graveyard? The literature indicates that olfactory cues and stress signals may be involved.

To debunk the myth, we all SCUBA dive to conduct visual surveys at specific sea grass bed sites in the East Harbor Lobster and Conch Reserve. Unlike any other project, we also spend hours interviewing local fishermen about their thoughts on the midden myth. Combining the experiment and social science aspects really produces an interesting and well-rounded result. Updates to come!

The 6 students involved conduct the visual survey together around a 20-meter radius circle. I’m taking notes in the outer ring (the red arrow!).


A Tiny Island: The Perfect Place for Self Reflection

It’s the final stretch of my time abroad, and I’ve realized I’ve come across some important lessons along the way…

Try to put yourself in my position! Imagine going to a place where you leave all of the common thing you identify with behind. You don’t have access to both the big and small defining characteristics of your day to day. From getting lunch with your best friends, driving your own car, or walking across a campus to the small things, like smelling your favorite shampoo, listening to city traffic, or ordering an iced coffee. Everything is different. You’re left with just your physical self, none of your favorite clothes, favorite people, or favorite classes. Being sunburned, barefaced, salty, and sweaty are the only consistent features your peers see. The “things” you’ve truly brought to identify with are your physical self and your idea of who you are. More importantly, your deep down sense of self… but who are you, really?

Of course, we’re all told that we are much more than our material things, but how do you proceed from there? I know that my desire to have the latest IPhone or computer can be a strange, modern social pressure, but now what?

When it’s just you with no material or physical distractions, how you present yourself and interact with others is the most telling of who you actually are. Especially in a small community of 34 students, you can’t just run away from the people you have differences with. You are forced to confront, forgive (hopefully), and reflect. When you make a mistake, do you forgive yourself and accept consequences or lie to protect your ego? When someone else makes a mistake, do you genuinely forgive them or hold a grudge, only going through the motions of a successful apology? You can’t hide in your room when there are corals to go observe, reports to write, or children to entertain. You can’t skip dinner when you have a strict community meal time or have to clean all the dishes. You can’t avoid someone when your living space is one open room. You have to approach new situations and conversations that may make you feel vulnerable. How you handles these interactions and your willingness to grow can help you understand who you truly are.

To even further this idea of self-discovery, you are much more than your ideas of who you are or who you should be. Everyone is told to never lie and to learn to forgive, but when are you ever so blatantly forced into those painful situations?

This study abroad opportunity has allowed me to let my beliefs and priorities be reflected in how I treat myself and others. My advice on a bench, my conversations at breakfast, and my unconditional acceptance of others. How I act, learn, work, or speak paints who I am. I am much more than a girl removed from her “normal” college student identify for 3 months. I am a whole person ready to love, grow, forgive, learn, and reflect with wisdom and eternal appreciation.

Thank you, South Caicos. You’ve shown me who I am now and where I want to grow.