Over the course of the last few years, Peter Melcher and Susan Witherup have developed field research studying invasive and native plants on the beaches of Puerto Rico. They are working on the invasive coastal species Scaevola taccada and its impact on the native species Scaevola plumerie. Susan had been conducting field collections to assess changes in DNA of the two species at several field sites and Peter’s role is to measure the physiological responses of these species in their native habitats to assess plant fitness and understand which traits give the invasive species the upper hand in the native habitats. This work also involves collaborations with faculty at the University of Puerto Rico, and plans for establishing a student exchange. The success of this project has excited the interest of other IC biology faculty to get involved and help expand the Puerto Rico experience into a broad, multifaceted, and ongoing field program.
Students get to travel to Puerto Rico for field data collection. In 2017, Adriana Morales-Gomez (‘17) went with Peter and Susan. Miranda Ella (‘19) traveled with Susan over spring break 2018 to Culebra, Puerto Rico to compare post-hurricane plant populations of Scaevola to pre-hurricane populations. What she found was that more damage to the
shorelines occurred during the strong nor’easter of winter 2018 than with Hurricane Maria. She witnessed some devastated shorelines, where much of the shoreline plant populations had been lost. In August 2018, Peter made another trip, and Sophia Pitti-Daly (‘19) took the lead on field work. Dave Gondek and Mikayla Heid (‘21) joined them to begin a project on the microbial community of the bioluminescent bay. This summer, Susan Witherup, Nanda Cortes, Abby Wine (‘20), and Mason Awe (‘20) went down. Susan also offers a January trip to the island as part of her popular Biology of Oceanic Islands course.