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Four decades of student-faculty research in the Bahamas

November 15, 2017

The rocky terrain and thorny vegetation where some of the world’s most critically endangered iguanas roam can be daunting to navigate, even for the most seasoned scientific researchers.

Just try catching one without scraping your knee, Earlham College’s John Iverson says.

He would know. For the last 38 years, he has been studying West Indian Rock Iguanas with students on the remote islands of The Bahamas every May in what is the longest running, continuous study of iguanas in the world. And with their help, the reptiles are slowly fighting off extinction.

“We’re making a difference,” says Iverson, a professor emeritus of Biology. He points to data that suggest the species is living longer and repopulating islands where the iguanas live with and without human contact.

Professor John Iverson and Students in Bahama“For our students, I can’t imagine a better situation to conduct scientific research and work with an endangered species in such a hands-on way,” he says. “The experience can also help them on their application for graduate school or prepare for a career as a veterinarian. We teach many of the skills they need to be successful. It certainly gives them a leg up on the competition.”

Since 1980, Iverson and teams of students have been monitoring the iguanas, taking blood samples, and compiling data that is helping scientists better understand how these reptiles live and adapt to the environmental hazards and human-imposed challenges they face. Through advocacy and public relations campaigns, Iverson’s research teams have also taken action against poachers and created safeguards against eco-tourists who feed them.

Since first arriving in The Bahamas, Iverson estimates that the populations size of this West Indian Rock Iguana has grown from approximately 150 to 1,500. That’s no small number, considering how susceptible the islands are to hurricanes and the growing effects of climate change.

“We’re still catching iguanas we caught in the 1980s,” Iverson says. “Some are 30, 40 or 50 years old.”

How to catch an Iguana 101

Earlhamites who have worked with Iverson become experts in catching and processing the elusive creatures, either by net, noose, trap or even by hand. Past research teams have even made how-to videos now available on YouTube.

“We’re very careful not to hurt the animal, but you have to be very firm once you catch them,” says Andrea Ball ’17, who participated in the most recent excursion and is preparing to apply to graduate school.

“Once you catch them, they will hiss and whip their tails at you. They have sharp claws. I personally prefer the dip netting approach,” she says. “We would get in groups with a bunch of people and surround them. Once you trap it, you have to run and get it really quick!”

Ball’s undergraduate education has taken her on countless research expeditions — Idaho, Florida and Tanzania in east Africa are just a few — but her May Term to the Bahamas may have been the most unique.

“We lived on a boat for 10 days,” she says. “I was nervous at first but it was so fun. Taking a shower meant dousing myself in environmentally friendly dish soap and jumping into the ocean, but working with John was awesome. He’s just amazing.

“I can’t say enough about my Earlham adventure,” she says. “There are so many opportunities here.”

High-impact research experiences like these are common at Earlham because of the College’s distinctive approach to the liberal arts, which makes purposeful connections between what students love with what they want to do with their life. The addition of The EPIC Advantage offers a funded research experience, project, or internship for all students before graduation.

‘John changed my life’

Professor Emeritus of Biology John IversonIverson’s tenure at Earlham pre-dates even his research in The Bahamas. Since arriving in 1978, he has become a leading national voice on reptile ecology (he spends equally as much time researching turtles in Nebraska, Florida and Indiana), and has co-authored 49 peer-reviewed publications involving 49 Earlham students. His work has been supported by more than $1 million in grants by the National Science Foundation, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, International Iguana Foundation, and Earlham-sponsored professional development funds, among other sources.

“I love when my students go on and get Ph.D.s, but I get the same satisfaction working with students who don’t pursue a career in biology but still have a great time on the research,” he says. “The most extreme reward I get is for those folks who make a difference in their own right independent of me.”

Stesha Pasachnik ’03, who now enjoys a career as a conservation biologist for the Fort Worth Zoo, is one example. So is Geoff Smith ’90 and Jessica Rettig ’91, who met while doing research with Iverson and later married. Both are tenured faculty in Denison University’s biology department.

“John changed my life by inviting me to go on his research trip to the Bahamas my first year at Earlham,” Pasachnik says. “This experience set my life in motion in a way that I would not understand until several years later when I completed my Ph.D. and earned a full-time position with the Fort Worth Zoo doing much of the same work we did together.

“John has been an incredible mentor and friend to me over the years, and it was that foundation in field ecology that I gained at Earlham that really made my career flourish. I know that is true for many other students.”

— EC —

Earlham College, a national liberal arts college located in Richmond, Indiana, is a "College That Changes Lives." We expect our students to be fully present: to think rigorously, value directness and genuineness, and actively seek insights from differing perspectives. The values we practice at Earlham are rooted in centuries of Quaker tradition, but they also constitute the ideal toolkit for contemporary success. Earlham is one of only 40 national liberal arts colleges ranked among U.S. News and World Reports' "Great Schools at a Great Price."

Brian Zimmerman is director of media relations at Earlham College. He can be reached at 765-983-1256 and zimmebr@earlham.edu.

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