Field Course in Marine Ecology

St. John, US Virgin Islands (Block A)

Course Description:

This course will introduce students to the plants and animals found in the marine and terrestrial environments of the Caribbean and focus on studying their adaptations and interactions in the context of community ecology. Fishes, invertebrates, reptiles and marine algae will be the major groups encountered and snorkeling will be used for observation and collection (SCUBA certification is not required.) Field work will be the main activity and attention will be given to collection methodology, identification, sampling techniques, research design and other useful field skills.

A typical day’s in this course may involve visits to two or three field locations (e.g., 3-5 hours snorkeling on reefs, seagrass beds and in mangrove creeks), a few lectures and laboratory time in the evening to observe organisms and interactions and conduct experiments. A weekly, 2-hour lecture period at the Duke Marine Lab just prior to departure will be used for lectures, discussions and to introduce the observation, collection and identification techniques to be employed in the course. During the first 5 days spent on St. John, the educational emphasis will be focused on visiting all of the 12 or more ecological habitats (e.g. seagrass, mangroves, coral reefs) on the island and to observe the organisms in situ. Following the site visits, there will be discussions about adaptations seen in the field and the significance of these adaptations in the context of morphology, anatomy, physiology, behavior, development and ecology.

Another major focus of the course is on the variety of biological interactions that occur on the reefs and their ecological/ evolutionary implications. During the second half of the course, students will work in pairs to conduct an independent research project that is closely supervised by 2 faculty (4 faculty and 4 TA’s instruct the course). This work will then presented as a 10 minute talk at a formal symposium on the last day of class and also written-up and handed in as a mock, scientific journal submission. Thus, by the end of this course, undergraduates will have completed scientific research from the beginning to the end, a rare experience for undergraduate majors and a key event to talk about in essays for admission into graduate school.