UMSL's Whitney R. Harris World Ecology Center Celebrates 20 Years of Conservation | St. Louis Public Radio

UMSL's Whitney R. Harris World Ecology Center Celebrates 20 Years of Conservation

Feb 18, 2010

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 18, 2010 - If the word "center" conjures up an image of spokes radiating on a wheel, think of the Whitney R. Harris World Ecology Center at the University of Missouri St. Louis as a hub of conservation and ecology initiatives.

The center, formerly the International Center for Tropical Ecology, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. In that time, graduate students from 30 countries from Argentina to Zambia have come to St. Louis for research with scientists from the Missouri Botanical Garden and the St. Louis Zoo, as well as with the UMSL biology faculty. Currently, the center has 40 master's students and 32 doctoral students. In all, 92 have completed the graduate certificate in tropical biology and conservation.

The center's original purpose --- to educate students from tropical countries to teach conservation or be leaders in the field -- has not changed. But the focus has grown from tropical to worldwide ecology and sustainable development. Now the center's graduate certificate is structured so that its students are "politically savvy, know some economics, and know how to work with people," says Patrick Osborne (right), executive director. They also learn about experimental design, in a course taught by Robert Marquis, scientific director of the center.

"This program is really developing leaders in the field of conservation biology," enthuses Eduardo Silva, professor of political science and member of the center's faculty. Silva teaches a mandatory course on policy, including strategies for dealing with leaders whose priorities may not be conservation.

Conservationists in action

Corneille Ewango, who got a master's in 2006, is an outstanding example of a conservation leader. As a child in the Democratic Republic of Congo, he helped his uncle poach elephant tusks. But he turned from poaching to ecology and earned an undergraduate degree in botany. He was appointed head of the botany program in the Wildlife Conservation Society's reserve for okapi in the Congolese rainforest. (The highly endangered okapi are related to giraffes.)

While Ewango was busy cataloguing nearly 1,000 trees and vines, civil war erupted. When rebels invaded the Okapi Station, Ewango risked his life to save the data and specimens. At a time when most senior staff had already fled, he remained. He hid specimens and data in the forest, burying some, and maintaining contact with the conservation society computer. He even confronted rebel commanders about poaching and helped the 14 okapi in the reserve's zoo to survive.

For his accomplishments, in 2005 Ewango was awarded the $150,000 Goldman Environmental Prize, given to those who face great risks. After completing his master's studies at UMSL, Ewango went on to a doctoral program in the Netherlands.

Patricia Baiao of Brazil completed her doctorate at the center last year, working with Patty Parker. Baiao's research on the Galapagos red-footed booby was funded by the Brazilian government. Within months after returning home, however, she became director of Amazon programs for Conservation International.

Inside the lab

Parker's lab is where many Harris Center students do their degree research. She has been applying molecular techniques to population and ecology studies in the Galapagos islands for about 25 years. When Parker became a Des Lee professor and senior scientist at the St. Louis Zoo in 2000, she had to re-think the focus of her research. Des Lee professors must spend half their time at a local community institution, so Parker took a year to decide how her strengths would complement those of the zoo.

She decided to collaborate with the zoo's veterinary specialists to look at diseases infecting the birds of the Galapagos. Parker and her students screen 26 bird species, ranging from finches to hawks to the Galapagos penguins, for disease. When the researchers capture a bird, they take measurements, a tiny blood sample and often a tiny tissue sample if they find a visible lesion. If they plan to return to a testing site frequently, the bird may be banded.

Back in the lab, antibody screening of the plasma tells the history of exposure to pathogens like West Nile virus and avian influenza. DNA analysis of the cells tells whether a bird is infected with blood parasites.

These analyses tell about not only the present state of bird health, but about when and how the disease came to the islands. Bird pox is an example. The pox causes raised lesions on the bird's skin, easily visible.

There are museum specimens of Galapagos birds all over the world. In specimens collected before 1898, no pox lesions are visible. But in collections made in a California Academy of Science expedition in 1898, pox lesions appeared on birds from the island of San Cristobal. Since that island is the most densely populated, Parker hypothesizes that the virus probably came in with someone's pet.

A blood parasite in doves tells the same story. The parasite on the isolated Galapagos islands is exactly the same as that found on mainland doves. If it had been infecting birds on the Galapagos for a long time, its DNA profile would have changed. Since the DNA profile had not changed, Parker believes that the parasite was imported with pigeons that settlers in the late 19th century brought in.

On the other hand, a louse on a Galapagos hawk tells a different story. This raptor is descended from Swainson's hawk, a summer resident in the American west, and a winter resident of Argentina. The louse that parasitizes the Galapagos hawk has a different DNA profile from that on Swainson's hawk. Therefore, the Galapagos louse evolved with its host when it settled the islands about 300,000 years ago.

Center's helping hand

Graduate students Jenni Higashiguchi and Jose Luis Rivera came to learn Parker's molecular approach to ecology and conservation. Higashiguchi had done some undergraduate research on introduced diseases in Hawaiian birds and wanted to continue that type of studies for her doctorate. Her ambitions fulfill the goals of the center: She is interested in bridging the gap between academics and the public and is thinking of working in a national park.

Rivera, from Ecuador, developed his love of animals by watching "Animal Kingdom." He will get his master's degree for work on the Galapagos hawk and is jointly supported by UMSL and the Peregrine Fund, an international foundation for raptor conservation.

Both students emphasized how much the center has helped them. Research and travel grants enable students to attend conferences and visit research sites to collect data for grant applications. "You need good preliminary data to make the kind of hypotheses that can win grants," said Rivera.

For its students, the center is a special source of support, both intellectual and financial. Its multi-institutional staff provides research opportunities far beyond those that even a large university can provide. Recently it has begun providing travel grants for some undergraduates to work at research sites throughout the world.

Local philanthropists Whitney R. Harris and Robert R. Hermann, and president of the Missouri Botanical Garden Peter Raven encouraged the center's establishment. From its earliest days, the center has included public education.

Each fall, a public forum is held at the Zoo, and each spring the public is invited to a lecture at the Garden. The center presents its World Ecology Medal annually to an individual with significant international contributions in ecology and related fields. Recipients have included Jane Goodall, Richard Leakey and Jacques Cousteau.

In honor of its anniversary, the center is presenting a series of free lectures by scientists who have collected 20 years of data on the same organisms or the same ecosystem. The next speaker, on Tuesday March 23, will be Kay Holekamp from Michigan State University, who will speak on behavioral development in mammals. A complete list of speakers is posted on the Whitney R. Harris World Ecology Center website.

Jo Seltzer is a freelance writer with more than 30 years on the research faculty at the Washington University School of Medicine and seven years teaching tech writing at WU's engineering school.