Professor and Students Explore Alaska's Biodiversity
Exploring the ecological diversity and breathtaking wilderness of Alaska was the trip of a lifetime this summer for a professor and students at the Farquhar College of Arts and Sciences.
Paul Arena, Ph.D., assistant professor, and marine biology majors Dustin Gerber and Erin Nassif flew 4,100 miles to Anchorage, Alaska, as part of the college’s travel-study course Biodiversity of Alaskan Ecosystems.
During their stay, they climbed mountains, crossed rivers, and hiked through the wilderness at Denali National Park. They had close encounters with moose, a grizzly bear, lynx, whales, sea lions, sea birds, a wolf, and many other types of wildlife—amounting to what Arena calls “a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
From their home base at the University of Alaska, they “hiked outside Anchorage through Chugach State Park and National Forest where we saw a moose and black bear,” Arena said. “We cruised through Kenai Fjords National Park, 98 percent of which is ice. Alaska touts 100,000 glaciers, which is more than the rest of the world. We spotted feeding humpback whales, sea lions, and a pod of five orcas, which are matrilineal. That means the group we saw was led by the mother, and the rest of the pod was her offspring.
“We also saw sea otters and many breeding sea birds, such as black murres, as well as tufted and horned puffins. These birds fly through the water using their wings to hunt down small fish. We were able to observe them nesting along the cliff sides of the coastal islands within Kenai Fjords National Park.”
Gerber and Nassif, both juniors, plan to pursue doctoral degrees in marine biology. A love for conservation and wildlife piqued their interest in the college’s trip to Alaska. Both also participated in a college travel-study trip to the Galapagos Islands in May 2011.
“I had never been to Alaska,” said Gerber, who hopes to become an observational biologist.
One of the trip’s highlights, for him, was a whale-watching excursion during which he saw orca and humpback whales as well as different species of birds.
“It was phenomenal to visualize the changes in the ecosystem and the geology in Alaska, such as the receding glaciers and the lack of glacial ice found in northern Alaska,” Gerber said. “It was devastating to see how these interesting communities are falling apart and will eventually be gone due to global warming and the anthropogenic impacts.”
“Being able to see the actual effect of glacial melting and observe predator and prey interactions—such as wolves hunting caribou—was amazing,” said Nassif, who also enjoyed seeing puffin, lynx, and a wolverine. “The highlight of the trip was getting to see organisms that I may never have the opportunity to see again anywhere else. Getting to experience and physically see what you are learning in the classroom is always a plus.”
The three traveled on what has been described as one of the most scenic train rides in America on their way to Denali National Park. “We stayed at a field camp within the park available only to educational groups,” Arena said. “While we explored a mere fraction of the six million acres preserved in the park, we encountered moose, caribou, Dall sheep, and a grizzly bear. We were witnesses to an amazing predator-prey interaction: a wolf chasing a caribou mother and her young calf. The locals describe having this collection of wildlife encounters as seeing “The Big Five.”
The students kept journals during the trip, which included a rare, crystal-clear view of Mount McKinley. Only 20 percent of visitors to Denali actually see the mountain, which is obscured by clouds most of the time.
“We had two additional extraordinary experiences in Denali,” Arena said. “The first was spending 10 to 15 minutes watching two lynx leisurely travel down the park road, and the second was seeing a wolverine. Both encounters are extremely rare events. Our guide has been working in Denali for 15 years, and she had never seen one before.”
The group also traveled to Fairbanks, an area known for its mineral resources, including gold. They visited the Museum of the North and a muskox farm both run by the University of Alaska. They also traveled through the tundra to the Arctic Circle.
During their stay, they met with local researchers studying migratory song-bird populations, Denali bird ecology, Denali bear ecology, global warming, and conservation of the North Slope Ecosystem. And they attended the World Eskimo Olympics, which provided a unique perspective of native cultures and traditional ways of life.
“Alaska is considered to be one of the few places on earth with pristine habitats and areas never explored by man,” Arena said. “However, it, too, is threatened by anthropogenic effects related to global warming, oil extraction, deforestation, and overfishing—all of which threaten the populations of diverse species (i.e., biodiversity) adapted to Alaska’s environment. I wanted to make sure I had the opportunity to experience this place, learn as much as I could about it, and pass this information on to our students.
“Students may feel disconnected from the material they learn in a classroom, especially while learning about an Arctic environment in the subtropics. But, this type of field experience not only creates lifelong memories, it connects them to the course material they recently learned.
“Hopefully, the students will have a lasting impression of the unique people, environments, and organisms living in this relatively unknown part of our country and the threats they face now and in the future because of global warming and human exploitation of natural resources,” Arena said.
Having traveled to Alaska firsthand, “I won’t forget what I saw,” Gerber said. “I’ll remember the species I’ve seen. I’ll remember the names of the plants, and I don’t normally remember flora. Going in a classroom and seeing slides and reading versus actually being there and being part of this world— touching it, smelling it, breathing the air— that’s a memory you won’t ever forget.”
To view photos taken on this Travel Study trip, visit the college’s Photo Gallery.