When you think of the Bahamas, you think of pristine beaches and tropical cocktails. But for Tyler Eubanks ’17, his visit down to the Bahamas was all about gaining valuable research experience in environmental science.
Goodnight Scholars Program: Tell us about your summer enrichment experience in the Bahamas.
Tyler Eubanks (shown in the photo above right): This past summer I participated in a study abroad program on Andros Island, the Bahamas. The program was meant to be an introduction to research, along with classroom lectures and discussions to supplement the research. We spent the beginning of the summer planning our research project, two weeks in the Bahamas in June doing the actual research, and then the remainder of the summer compiling and interpreting our results, and writing our research paper. Throughout the program our research group’s instructor, Dr. Brian Langerhans, provided guidance and the necessary resources to keep our research moving smoothly. Andros is an island with an unusually shallow aquifer – at many points on the island the aquifer meets the surface, creating vertical caves filled with water called blue holes. Our research focused on mosquitofish populations in blue holes. The mosquitofish populations in blue holes are remarkable, in that they are completely isolated from each other, despite the close proximity of some blue holes to each other. Dr. Langerhans and our group tested fish populations on six different blue holes across Andros.
Around 10,000 years ago water levels rose, blue holes filled with water, and mosquitofish colonized the blue holes by traveling from the ocean, through marshland. By doing this, they escaped their ancestral predator in the ocean, the needlefish. However, some populations of mosquitofish encountered a new piscine predator, the big mouth sleeper. Other blue holes do not have big mouth sleepers, and these populations of mosquitofish have lived in the absence of predators for 10,000 years. The isolation of blue holes from each other has prevented gene flow amongst populations in close proximity, and allowed mosquitofish populations in separate blue holes to evolve different body structures and behaviors. These body structures and behaviors are largely determined by the presence or absence of the mosquitofish’s lone predator, the big mouth sleeper. Organisms have evolved to avoid and escape predators through behaviors known as antipredator behaviors. Our research tested whether these mosquitofish have retained or lost their antipredator behaviors, if they are removed from a predator for thousands of years.
Why the Bahamas?
I’ve always been fascinated with the Caribbean. The rich history and culture spanning thousands of islands, combined with the warm weather and pristine environments make it quite an appealing place. The Bahamas are a great place to experience a foreign culture without having to breach any language barriers. When I discovered that there was a study abroad program through NC State in the Bahamas, I was quite interested. Once I realized that it was a program for conservation biology, a field that I have a great deal of interest in, I immediately started on my application. While on Andros, we stayed in a research station run by Americans called Forfar Field Station. Forfar is situated on the beach, on the east coast of Andros. I’m convinced that there isn’t a better way to start your day than waking up every morning and walking out onto a white, sandy beach to watch the sun rise. We were also just a 10-15 minute boat ride away from some amazing reefs and other snorkeling locations. Simply put, Andros was an awesome location to explore, learn, and make new friends during the summer.
Were there any major highlights on this trip for you?
The entire process of spending months forming a research plan, performing our experiments on Andros, and then compiling our results into a research paper has been extremely rewarding. However, some of my favorite parts of my enrichment experience were the moments spent interacting with the people of Andros like Otis the Fisherman, Henry the Carver, Ricardo the Mechanic, or Sheila the Restaurant Owner. These were the kind of people who really made the trip awesome. The conversations we had with these locals and many others around town were always very interesting, and it gave us an insight into a different culture, and a different way of living. Everyone was extremely friendly, and always eager to discuss Andros and the history of the island.
What are the implications for your research?
The results of our research suggested that the mosquitofish from blue holes with big mouth sleepers displayed generalized antipredator responses to the presence of their ancestral predator, the needlefish. However, the mosquitofish from the blue holes without big mouth sleepers were not displaying the same behaviors, suggesting that they may have lost their antipredator behaviors. This could be potentially problematic if a new predator was introduced into the blue holes that currently do not have any predators. The mosquitofish from those populations may not be able to effectively adapt to the renewed risk. This problem exists for more than just the Bahamas mosquitofish; if species are unable to retain anti-predator behaviors in the absence of predators, many populations could be facing major impacts. As climate change occurs, organisms are colonizing new habitats, and interacting with other species that they had previously never encountered. These invasive species often have a detrimental effect on the predator-prey balance in ecosystems. Understanding the evolutionary mechanisms affecting antipredator behavior may enable the discovery of potential solutions for these issues as they arise. It could also shed light on potential costs of losing antipredator behaviors, how rapid this loss occurs, and how this naturally occurs.
How did you see yourself grow personally or professionally during your time in the Bahamas?
Through this trip, I gained a significant understanding of the different way of life of people living in the third world. Many Bahamians, especially on Nassau, live in an environment similar to the United States. However, on Andros the way of life for many is much more difficult. The soil is too poor for farming, and the tourism on the island is minimal – the island’s only sustainable industry is fishing. As a result, the unemployment rate on Andros is nearly 40%, and many of the island’s inhabitants live in extreme poverty. One of the most eye opening experiences was going to visit a small village on the west side of Andros called Red Bays. This community was composed of sponge divers and basket weavers, who lived in small shacks and thatch roof huts. I think that this experience, and several others like it, helped me grow a lot as a person while in Andros, and give me a broader outlook on the different cultures across the world.
What advice would you give someone who is considering travelling abroad?
Go for it, and see what’s out there! One of the best decisions that I’ve ever made was applying for the Goodnight Scholars ASB trip to Trinidad last year. I had never left the U.S. before that trip, and I now have what many people call the “travel bug.” If you’re nervous to travel or fly as I was, that’s even more of a reason to travel. Put yourself in a situation that makes you uncomfortable, and you’ll grow significantly more confident in yourself, and learn a lot in the process. I’ve never heard of anyone who has studied abroad and regretted the experience in retrospect.
Any advice for students looking to test the waters of undergraduate research?
The process of conducting independent research was a learning experience unlike any other that I had encountered before. Dr. Langerhans provided the guidance and resources necessary to conduct our experiments, but left much of the decision-making as how to conduct our research up to us. My group members and I had to form the research plan ourselves, which turned out to be quite challenging; whenever we ran into an obstacle, the answers to our problems were usually not found in a textbook. Rather, our problems were solved through careful thought, brainstorming, and group discussions. I’d recommend anyone who wants to take the next step in their academic career to get involved in undergraduate research. It requires the application of more problem-solving skills than a traditional classroom setting, and the things you learn along the way seem much more meaningful. It’s easy to get involved! Simply contact professors who have undergraduate research that interests you, or do as I did and apply for a study abroad program that integrates research into the curriculum.
Photography credit: Tyler Eubanks/Goodnight Scholars Program