Ecology Students Take Learning Outside the Classroom during Summer Field Biology Class

June 11, 2014

smee field biology

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Nine Island University students embarked on a 10-day trip from May 15-23, 2014, into the wilderness as part of the Summer Field Biology class led by Drs. Lee Smee and Kirk Cammarata, Associate Professors in the College of Science and Engineering.

“The class is important because students get to experience ecology, not just learn about it from a book,” said Smee. “They also get to see freshwater and terrestrial systems not seen by many of our students.”

This is the second year Smee and Cammarata have led this type of “hands on” classroom to the unique ecosystems of the Chihuahuan Desert in West Texas. Both times, students have been able to bring the information in their textbooks to life during the field trips. This year, the class camped in Davis Mountains State Park near Fort Davis, Texas, and in Brantley Lake State Park near Carlsbad, N.M. While in Carlsbad, the class visited the famous caverns, including the famous “The Big Room,” a 4,000-foot long cave with a 300-foot ceiling, at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. The class also visited Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas, which is adjacent to Carlsbad Caverns, and hiked up Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in the Lone Star State. The hike is unique as students began in a desert ecosystem surrounded by desert plants and ended in a forest of ponderosa pines commonly found in the Rocky Mountains.

“One of the motifs we explored on our trip was how heavily organisms are shaped by the environment and by the other organisms that share it,” said Kevin Wolfe, a doctoral student in the Marine Biology Ph.D. program. “At every location we visited, it was clear that natural selection was busy at work.”

Smee explained that the purpose of the trip was to help students learn about the inhospitable conditions to which plants and animals must adapt to in the desert and mountains.

“In the desert, conditions are harsh and many species have specialized adaptations to handle them but, when you get into the mountains, temperatures are lower, and forests are present,” said Smee. “This allows us to discuss many ecological patterns related to water and temperature, changes in communities with elevation, and how favorable habitats within harsh climates act as islands for species that cannot survive in the desert.”

Over the 10-day trip, students also visited the University of Texas’ McDonald Observatory and Roswell, N.M.; hiked Mt. Livermore, the highest point in the Davis Mountains; and camped at Garner State Park in Concan, Texas on the return trip.

“This experience helped show me how the entire environment is connected and how each part of the environment can affect the other,” said John Johnson, a junior Marine Biology major. “The entire trip was very insightful.”