Conservation management topics

HO106 Prevalence of chytrid in amphibian populations within Cusuco

(start dates 07 June, 14 June or 21 June; need to complete HO001)

This project has a waiting list

The effective conservation of Cusuco National Park is imperative for many endemic species, none more so than cloud forest amphibians. The spread of chytrid fungus has caused severe declines in many amphibian populations and is a major concern for global amphibian conservation. Chytrid is known to have been present within the amphibian populations of Cusuco for at least 15 years, but its prevalence within specific areas of the forest and the extent to which different species are affected are not well known. Amphibian species will be encountered during diurnal and nocturnal transects and swabbed for chytrid. Swabs will be taken back to the lab at base camp and tested for the presence of chytrid using polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and visualised using agarose gel electrophoresis. Individuals will also be assessed for visual signs of infection. Prevalence of chytrid will be mapped in the park using multiple years’ data to assess whether the disease is continuing to spread to previously uninfected areas to contribute to the investigation into the underlying mechanism of infectivity.

Extended Project Summary


HO112 Tracking the recovery of a keystone urchin species and its role in reef restoration

(start dates 14 June, 21 June or 28 June; need to complete dive training and the Caribbean reef ecology course)

This project has a waiting list

Under natural conditions, the sea urchin (Diadema antillarum) is the most important herbivore on Caribbean coral reefs, and is therefore considered a keystone species. However, a disease in the 1980s caused the death of an estimated 98% of individuals throughout the region. This mass mortality event had a devastating effect on reef health, driving subsequent phase shifts to algal dominated benthic communities. Recovery has been extremely limited, with populations on most reefs still severely depleted, and Utila Island is a classic example of this. Remarkably, the Banco Capiro reef system in Tela Bay has a population density of D. antillarum at astonishingly high levels. It also boasts extremely high benthic reef health, despite historical overfishing leading to a complete collapse of the fishery. Since its recent discovery, Operation Wallacea scientists began detailed population studies in 2013 and this project will continue to build on this. The primary objective is to quantify changes in the abundance, biomass and population structure of D. antillarum on the reefs of Utila and Banco Capiro. Further data will assess the potential roles of competition, predation and environmental factors in driving the recovery on Banco Capiro.

Extended Project Summary


HO113 Managing the Caribbean lionfish invasion

(start dates 14 June, 21 June or 28 June; need to complete dive training and the Caribbean reef ecology course)

This project has a waiting list

Lionfish are an invasive species in the Caribbean and are having a devastating impact on local fish communities throughout the region. Introduced in the 1980s, believed to be by accident, lionfish have spread extremely quickly and are now found as far as New York City and Brazil. Their success is down to a number of factors, including their high reproductive rate, generalism in terms of both diet and habitat, and a lack of natural predators. They are now considered to be one of the greatest threats to the future of Caribbean coral reefs and their fish communities. Management approaches to dealing with the lionfish invasion are limited, with one of the most common being direct removal via spear fishing. This relies on regular visitation to individual reef sites, as studies have shown full recovery of lionfish populations only five months after complete removal. Baseline data will be collected on population densities of lionfish at sites of varying intensities of culling. Lionfish will subsequently be removed and morphometric measurements taken along with dissections for physiological and gut content assessments, which can link fish assessments to gauge prey availability. In addition, lionfish behavioural responses to divers, such as Flight Initiation Distance (FID) and Alert Distance (AD)can be assessed, which could also be expanded to include commercially valuable fish such as grouper.

Extended Project Summary


IN173 Fisheries research in local communities

(start dates 13 June or 27 June)

Opwall have been working with local fishing communities in the Wakatobi for almost 20 years, developing a deep understanding of the conservation issues associated with declining fish stocks and producing several award winning dissertations along the way. Opportunities exist for students to build on this extensive experience by completing dissertation projects focusing on artisanal fishing pressure by working alongside Opwall staff and local Indonesian partners in small fishing communities on and around Kaledupa island. To talk about this opportunity, and how it might be suitable for your undergraduate or masters dissertation research, please email Dr Dan Exton: dan.exton@opwall.com


ME141 Bird diversity and distribution in relation to forest structure in the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, Mexico

(start dates 12 June or 26 June; need to have completed ME001)

The Calakmul Biosphere Reserve has extremely high bird diversity with over 360 resident bird species, many of which are endemic. Due to the traditional farming methods of the Ancient Mayans and their direct descendants living in the buffer zone of the reserve, Calakmul contains a large expanse of old growth forest in the core zone, and old growth forest and regenerating forests of various ages in the buffer zone. In addition, there is a notable rainfall gradient from the north to the south of the reserve that results in a gradual change in forest structure and tree species composition. Diversity of forest dwelling birds generally decreases with forest disturbance, but a study from one buffer zone community in Calakmul unexpectedly found that both bird abundance and diversity remained constant across regenerating forests of various ages and old growth forest. As the first Mayan settlers arrived in the Calakmul region before the forest appeared (the climate was too dry to support forest until relatively recently), it is possible that the bird population has evolved with the Mayan farming methods and thus the birds have adapted to using all forest types. The abundance and diversity of birds in Calakmul can be monitored using point counts and mist netting at multiple research locations in the reserve. These data will be collected across a range of transects in the reserve that encompass different habitat characteristics. Each transect contains a number of 20m x 20m habitat survey plots that provide detailed information of the forest characteristics in the area. In each of these plots, tree species will be identified, tree DBH, understorey vegetation, canopy openness, and the number of saplings will be measured. Bird data from each transect can then be related to mean habitat characteristics for the transect and comparisons between bird diversity and habitat variables may be investigated.

Extended Project Summary


ME143 Large mammal abundance and distribution patterns in relation to habitat characteristics and hunting in the Mayan forest

Large mammal density at Calakmul Biosphere Reserve is very high and the forest is one of the last remaining strongholds of endangered mammals such as spider monkeys, jaguar and tapir. Although these species are not hunted, indigenous people are allowed to hunt other large mammals such as peccary and deer (which are the preferred prey of jaguar and puma). The tropical semi-deciduous forest in the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve is unusual in that areas close to the Mayan Ruins contain unusually high densities of large fruiting trees (the result of Ancient Mayan agro-forestry) in comparison to other areas. As there are no rivers or streams in the reserve, forest structure is also heavily affected by distance from the few permanent water sources in the reserve known as aguadas. The aim of the large mammal research project is to investigate the relationship between habitat characteristics and large mammal abundance and ranging, and to investigate the impact of hunting of preferred prey species on the abundance and distribution of felids. Mammal abundance data will be collected along a series of forest transects using distance sampling (based on visual sightings of more commonly encountered species such as primates) and patch occupancy sampling (based on tracks and signs of more elusive species such as tapir and jaguar). Additional data will be collected using camera traps enabling comparison of density estimates produced by the different types of surveys. The survey transects are distributed across a wide range of forest habitat types and each transect contains a number of 20m x 20m habitat survey plots. In each of these plots, tree species will be identified, and DBH and tree height will be measured. Large mammal data from each transect can then be related to mean habitat characteristics or the transect and comparisons between mammal abundance and habitat variables may be investigated.

Extended Project Summary


ME146 Sea turtle nest site preferences and hatchling sex ratios

(start dates 12 June or 26 June)

This project has a waiting list

There are seven species of sea turtle in the world, all of which are either threatened or endangered. The beaches of Akumal (meaning “home of the turtles”) are nesting ground for two of these species: the loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta) and the green turtle (Chelonia mydas). One of the major aims of the ongoing turtle conservation project is to ensure that the turtles have access to suitable nesting sites on the beaches. In order to do so, it is necessary to understand the nesting site preferences of the green and loggerhead turtles and to ascertain the nest characteristics associated with successful incubation. Investigation of turtle nesting will record the number and location of green and loggerhead turtle nests, noting their distance from the shore, habitat characteristics, their depth, temperature inside the nest, number of eggs laid and number of successful hatchlings. As turtles are reptiles, the temperature inside the nest during the incubation period determines the sex ratio of hatchlings. Males are produced at lower temperatures than females and with beach temperatures on the rise due to climate change, there is major concern that sex ratios are highly female-skewed. It is not possible to determine the sex of hatchlings without dissection, but sex ratios can be inferred from mean nest temperature recorded on HOBO data loggers inserted into the nest during nesting. Variation in likely sex ratios can then be linked to nest site characteristics to determine areas of the beach that are able to produce males. In addition, the sheer number of turtles attempting to nest in the Akumal area results in turtles digging up existing nests on the beach due to a lack of space to make new nests. For this reason, it is necessary to relocate some of the nests into beach hatcheries and thus ensure careful management of the density of nests in the hatchery and the amount of shade they receive to maintain correct nest temperatures to produce balanced sex ratios of hatchlings.

Extended Project Summary


ME147 Effect of tourism on immature green turtle behaviour in Akumal Bay

(start dates 12 June or 26 June)

This project has a waiting list

Year-round you can find immature green turtles (Chelonia mydas) feeding on the seagrasses in Akumal Bay. These turtles have become a popular tourist attraction and there is concern that both the number of tourists and the behaviour of tourists is affecting the behaviour and welfare of the turtles. Multiple studies of “swim with wild dolphin” based tourism has indicated that when the number of tourists gets too high, or the tourists attempt to touch them, the dolphins issue evasive responses to attempt to escape from the tourist and, if the tourism continues to maintain high numbers, the dolphins simply move their home range to areas inaccessible by tour boats. As the availability of healthy seagrasses in the Mexican Caribbean coastline is limited, the turtles in Akumal Bay may not have the option of leaving the area to avoid large numbers of tourists so the snorkel with turtle tours need to be strictly regulated. As Akumal Bay has just been declared a protected area, data is urgently required to determine the carrying capacity of snorkel based tourism. Research into green turtle behaviour will involve snorkelling with the turtles throughout the day to record their activity budgets and rates of evasive responses to tourists using focal animal sampling with continuous recording. Each turtle can be recognized individually and at the start of each focal sample the turtle will be photographed from various angles for subsequent identification from the turtle photo ID database. The number of tourists within a 5m radius of each turtle and the behaviour of these tourists (whether they abide by the rules and maintain a safe distance from the turtles or attempt to interact with them) will be recorded throughout each focal sample to determine the effect of tourism on turtle behaviour.

Extended Project Summary


ME148 Immature green turtle foraging behaviour and seagrass abundance in Akumal Bay

(start dates 12 June or 26 June)

This project has a waiting list

There are three species of seagrass present in Akumal Bay: Thallassia testudinum, Siryngodium filiforme and Halodule wrightii. Ongoing monitoring of the foraging behaviour of the turtles has indicated a clear feeding preference for T. testudinum and unsurprisingly, ongoing monitoring of the seagrasses has indicated a decline in the abundance of T. testudinum. Immature green turtles naturally form large foraging groups and once a food patch has been depleted they move to a new area. However, limited availability of seagrasses in the Akumal area means that this may not be possible for the turtles in Akumal Bay and thus steps must be taken to sustainably manage the seagrasses. S. filiforme and H. wrightii seagrass remain abundant in Akumal Bay, but as turtle foraging on these grasses has been limited, the grasses lack digestible young shoots. Investigation into the state of the seagrasses and feeding behaviour of the turtles is therefore necessary to determine whether active management of the seagrasses (e.g. trimming the S. filiforme and H. wrightii to encourage new shoots to grow) is required to maintain a viable food supply for the turtles. Moreover, existing data shows that snorkel based tourism influences the movement patterns and foraging behaviour of the turtles resulting in heavy grazing of tourist-free areas and avoidance of seagrasses in areas where snorkel tours are prevalent. As Akumal Bay is now a protected area there is the option of re-zoning the bay to ensure that snorkel tours do not prevent turtles from accessing important areas of seagrasses, but data relating to seagrass coverage and turtle foraging behaviour is required to determine the specific location of tourist-free areas. Research into green turtle behaviour will involve snorkelling with the turtles throughout the day to record their foraging patterns. Seagrass quadrats surveys will be used to determine the availability of the various species of seagrasses, which can then be compared to turtle feeding preferences obtained from behavioural observations.

Extended Project Summary


ME149 A comparison of pristine and degraded mangroves in Akumal and the impact of mangrove degradation on adjacent seagrasses and coral reefs

(start dates 12 June or 26 June)

This project has a waiting list

Mangrove forests are highly productive marine ecosystems that are essential for the health of adjacent ecosystems e.g. sea grass beds and coral reefs. Yet, as much as 1 – 2% of the global mangrove forests are lost per year. Mangroves draw down atmospheric CO2 sequester and trap fine sediments, facilitate vital biodiversity mechanisms (e.g. fish nurseries) and improve fishery productivity. Despite the obvious importance of mangroves, mangrove forests in the Yucatan Peninsula have been under considerable anthropogenic impact from harvesting, causing a reduction in important habitat and biodiversity, carbon sequestration, and the productivity of adjacent sea grass and coral reef ecosystems. If the ecosystem services that mangroves provide can be quantified, then there is scope to develop a mangrove equivalent of the REDD programme in which fishing communities could receive economic investment in exchange for continued protection of the mangroves. Projects could therefore focus on a comparison of the structure, function, and faunal diversity of pristine and degraded mangroves or an investigation of wood degradation processes across mangroves of differing quality. In addition, projects could investigate health and diversity of seagrasses and coral reefs in relation to the level of degradation of adjacent mangroves. Belt transects and permanent plots will be used to record tree composition, basal areas and tree densities. Biodiversity assessments will be conducted by investigation of the available mangrove substrata. Snorkel and dive based transect and quadrat surveys may be used to assess diversity and coverage of seagrasses, hard corals and algae.


ME151 The conservation of and improvement of Caribbean coral reefs: Reef restoration through plantation of Acropora cervicornis

(start dates 12 June or 26 June)

This project has a waiting list

Acropora is one of the most important Caribbean corals in terms of its contribution to reef growth and fishery habitat. Acroporid species are the Caribbean’s fastest growing reef-building corals. Since the 1970s, Caribbean acroporid populations have been decimated by disease outbreak. Their recovery has been impaired by the general poor health of Caribbean coastal ecosystems. In Akumal this decline is estimated at >90%, although it is unlikely that this truly represents the loss of coral due to the lack of reliable data. Coral restoration is increasingly considered to be a viable recovery plan. In Akumal preliminary research has been conducted to trial success rates of coral nurseries where Acropora cervicornis is grown, propagated and then transplanted onto the reef. The methods used are minimally invasive and require cheap materials. The trials have proved to be successful, with doubling of live tissue from dying rescued fragments within one year, combined with successful fusion and growth of transplanted colonies onto the reef. In order to measure the impact of coral restoration work, it is essential to develop baseline data from which to measure the successful colonies that have grown as a result of the restoration work. Using continuous belt transects on the reef, the mapping of acroporid colonies will be conducted to assess the distribution, abundance and surface area of the colonies. Coral frags will be out-planted at various distances from the mother colony to measure successful recruitment and growth at different sites from that of the mother colony. Reef fish assemblages, particularly juveniles, will be assessed on reefs with none or few acroporid colonies. Established acroporid frags will then be planted onto those reefs and re-assessed. These data will be compared to reefs with a high density of acroprids.

Extended Project Summary


PE153 Potential impacts of climate change on sustainable fishing resources for the Cocama indigenous people

(start dates 11 June or 25 June)

This project has a waiting list

opulations of the Pacaya-Samiria Reserve are a vital resource for the local Cocama people, making up to 70% of the protein in their diet. Fund Amazonia and Opwall have been monitoring the fish populations of the Pacaya-Samiria Reserve for eight years and have seen dramatic fluctuations in abundance and diversity in response to changing water levels. This means there is huge potential for continuing climate fluctuations to affect the fish community and hence the people who depend on them for their livelihood. This project could combine studying the fish abundance and diversity responses to climate change using the long-term datasets, coupled with the sociological impact of these changes on the local indigenous people. Fish sampling is carried out using 30m x 3m gill nets with 3 inch mesh and fished for as close to one hour as possible. The fishing locations are chosen by our local guides to imitate the genuine fishing conditions of local people. Sociological data regarding how the changing fish populations are affecting the type of fish eaten, the amount of time spent fishing and the fishing methods being used could be collected by interviewing local guides and by organised visits to nearby Cocama villages.

Extended Project Summary


SW162 Calculating the carrying capacity of the Royal Jozini Big 6 Reserve for elephant populations

(start date 24 June)

This project has a waiting list

In 2016, around 80 elephants broke free of their home and moved to the greener pastures of Royal Jozini Big 6 Reserve in Swaziland. The reserve management were happy to receive the elephants, but due to the unplanned nature of this translocation were unable to properly assess the elephant carrying capacity of the reserve prior to their arrival. Determining elephant carrying capacities for small fenced reserves is difficult, and many different densities have been put forward as reasonable estimates for the number of elephants any given area of land can sustain. However, these estimates are unlikely to be transferable from one reserve to another due to differences in rainfall, water availability, vegetation etc. The nearby Pongola Game Reserve has been estimated to be capable of sustaining 0.38 elephants per square kilometre. However, research has shown that other reserves, such as Kruger National Park, should be able to sustain densities of up to 1.5 elephants / km2. The reserve management therefore needs a carrying capacity estimate based on the actual composition of the RJB6 reserve. Vegetation assessments will be conducted in order to quantify the amount of damage being caused by the elephants and accurately assess the available browse across the reserve. These data could then be used to help set elephant carrying capacity levels in terms of how many would be sustainable to keep levels of habitat damage below pre-determined levels (e.g. less than 20% of the area must have 40% or more trees and shrubs in the top 3 categories of the Walker damage scale). The position of the elephant herds has been noted virtually daily since 2008 in both Pongola and RJB6, allowing an accurate assessment of ranging patterns and habitat preferences. This positional data could be plotted on GIS programs to calculate areas of differential elephant usage and compared between the two reserves.

Extended Project Summary


SO164 Monitoring the populations and ranging patterns of the critically endangered black rhino

(start date 24 June)

This project has a waiting list

The critically endangered black rhino once ranged throughout southern Africa, but a devastating poaching wave in the early 1990s reduced their numbers to just 2000. Now, many initiatives are working towards protecting land containing good black rhino habitat, in order to increase the numbers of growth rate of this endangered species. The Black Rhino Range Expansion project, a collaboration between WWF and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, has helped create 10 new black rhino populations in South Africa. Thanks to initiatives like this, the overall population of black rhino is increasing throughout Africa. But ensuring the long-term success of this initiative requires constant monitoring and further gathering of knowledge regarding the new rhino populations. Opwall students have the rare opportunity to assist this project by collecting behavioural and ranging data on a small population of black rhinos in the Kwa-Zulu Natal region within the Pongola reserve. These rhinos were introduced into the reserve in 2006 and have been closely monitored by the onsite researcher for the majority of that time. Data collected in 2017 will be added to long-term data sets to provide further information regarding the ranging patterns and interactions of an established population of this enigmatic species.

Extended Project Summary


TR165 Plant indicator species of grasslands in Transylvania

(start date 28 June)

Transylvania has some of the most species rich hay meadows and pastures in Europe with traditional management, low fertilizer input and low stocking rates. Fundatia ADEPT, Opwall’s partner in Romania, has with the help of some experienced botanists, identified a guide of 30 plant species indicative of high conservation dry grasslands. What is not known is whether some of the indicators are more commonly associated with the highest value meadows or pastures and so act as ‘super indicators’. This can be judged by comparing the occurrence of each species against quality of habitat i.e. the total number of indicator species at a site. An association analysis of indicator species is also needed to identify which species tend to occur together (and so can be considered to be replicates of each other) and which are more unique. This study will be conducted at at least 12 sites already identified around 8 villages across the Natura 2000 site in Transylvania. Grassland surveys using these 30 indicator species were conducted at a series of sites around 8 villages within the Tarnava Mare region in 2014, 2015, 2016 and six of those villages in 2013, so there are existing data sets to compare against the survey data in 2017.

Extended Project Summary


TR166 Butterfly communities as indicators of habitat changes in Tarnava Mare

(start date 28 June)

Pollard counts of butterfly communities in different habitats (species rich grasslands, species poor grassland, abandoned land, scrub areas and farmland) have been completed at a series of sites around eight villages across Tarnava Mare in 2014, 2015 & 2016 and at six of those same villages in 2013. These surveys are revealing interesting patterns in butterfly habitat associations and changes in the communities over time. The same sites surveyed since 2013 will be resurveyed in 2017 and these data can be used to identify habitat associations and changes between years within the butterfly communities. One useful output from these studies might be the identification of butterfly species which could be used as indicators of high nature conservation grassland.

Extended Project Summary


TR167 Changes in bird communities in Tarnava Mare and habitat associations

(start date 28 June)

Point counts for 10 minutes of all birds seen or heard were completed twice at each of nearly 300 sites across the Tarnava Mare region in 2014, 2015 & 2016 and at nearly 200 of those same sites in 2013. The 300 sites are being resurveyed in 2017 and these datasets, together with those from previous years, would enable a number of different questions to be addressed. For example, what changes in the bird communities over the study period have been noted? What are the preferred habitats of the main species and how has the proportion of these habitats changed over the study period? If farming practices change how could this affect the bird communities? Are there species which could be used as indicators of habitat quality? This project is data rich and should enable some complex analyses to be performed.

Extended Project Summary


TR169 Farming changes in the Tarnava Mare region and how these are likely to impact biodiversity

(start date 28 June)

Since 2013 there have been detailed surveys of farming practice in a series of farms across the Tarnava Mare region. These data show differences in the types of livestock held in different villages across Tarnava Mare and the farm surveys being completed in 2017 could look at whether those differences have persisted. The project could estimate the livestock breeds (cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, poultry) owned by a series of farms across the Tarnava Mare region and attempt to identify why such differences may be occurring such as traditional usage, availability of land or economic benefits. Another project could look at grassland management and the influence of the EU payments for traditional management practices whilst another project could examine changes in crops and the likely impact on biodiversity.

Extended Project Summary


TR170 Distribution of abandoned land in the Tarnava Mare Reserve

(start date 28 June)

Land abandonment is one type of agricultural change in Tarnava Mare driven by membership of the EU and associated policy and socioeconomic changes. This project seeks to better understand the process of abandonment and the factors behind such land use change. Fieldwork will involve mapping the location and the extent of abandoned farmland for each village. GIS-based spatial analyses can then be used to investigate distribution patterns: the degree to which abandoned land is clustered or randomly dispersed across the landscape, and whether there are characteristic field shapes and sizes. Further analysis will investigate the influence of various factors on the likelihood of abandonment, such as topography (steepness of slope and altitude), distance to the village, and soil characteristics.

Extended Project Summary


TR172 Small mammal species distribution and abundance in relation to land composition within the Tarnava Mare

(start date 28 June)

The Tarnava Mare Natura 2000 area offers a unique opportunity to study the ecology of small mammals in a traditional, yet vulnerable farming system. These systems provide a mosaic of habitats for several small mammal species. The habitats include species-rich grassland, cultivated fields and woodlands. The threat of encroaching scrub has become a major concern for the conservation of the species-rich grassland and is likely to affect small mammal distribution. Several species of rodents and some shrew species utilise the species rich grassland but data are needed on utilisation of these habitat mosaics by small mammal communities or how small mammals are responding to shrub encroachment and changes in farming practices. Capture mark recapture techniques can be used to assess population size in different habitats, breeding dynamics and habitat preference. The conservation of small mammal habitats is not only important for the small mammals themselves but is important for the range of predators that rely on them for prey. Species like the lesser spotted eagle are of major conservation concern and voles are known to be an important part of their diets. Assessing mammal distribution and densities throughout the Tarnava Mare is important to help monitor the efficacy of the Natura 2000 management schemes in conserving this
fragile ecosystem.

Extended Project Summary