Environmental Sciences

Department News

Planet Ocean Seminar Series

Dr. Shew seminar

Graduate School Open House 

A Graduate School Open House was held on October 11th, 2017 in the Education Building Atrium from 4pm - 6pm.  Program coordinators, graduate assistants, and current students from graduate programs were on hand to talk to those interested in attending graduate school at UNCW.  EVS Professors Dr. Jamie Rotenberg and Dr. Devon Eulie discussed the EVS Master's of Science in Environmental Studies degree program with prospective students, and were on hand at the EVS Graduate Program area to give out specific details regarding the program requirements and deadlines. 

grad school open house

EVS Undergraduate Program Earns National Ranking

The EVS undergraduate programs were ranked 32nd in the nation by EnvironmentalScience.org. EnvironmentalScience.org considered a variety of federally reported data as well as the percentage of students graduating with degrees in disciplines closely related to the environmental sciences. To learn more, click here.

Environmental Sciences faculty awarded National Geographic Society/Waitt Grants Program Funding to explore Harpy Eagles, snails and sinkholes in Belize.

Dr. Jamie Rotenberg in Belize

Wilmington, North Carolina, September 2016 -- UNCW associate professor of Environmental Sciences, James Rotenberg, was awarded a National Geographic Society/Waitt Grants Program Grant to conduct research in Belize (http://www.nationalgeographic.com/explorers/grants-programs/waitt-grants/).  His grant, entitled, “Harpy Eagles, snails, and a sinkhole: discovering how ecosystems work by looking through three unknown portals of the Bladen Nature Reserve, Belize” is the first with support provided by the National Geographic Society/Waitt Grant Program to the Environmental Sciences Department and the second for Rotenberg. 

Rotenberg, who studies Harpy Eagles, led an international team of 20 researchers and porters on an expedition to study the biodiversity of this remote reserve.  Backpacking 12-miles into the Maya Mountain rainforest, and aided by remote control drones, Rotenberg and his team carried out biodiversity surveys of birds and snails, and explored a large sinkhole that turned out to be nearly as deep as the length of a football field.  “The expedition was a real success,” said Rotenberg.  “We accomplished more than I ever imagined and the drones collected mountains of data.” 

Team members included researchers from the University of California San Diego’s (UCSD) “Engineers For Exploration (E4E)” based in the Qualcomm Institute, Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee, members of the US Deep Caving Team, and staff, rangers, and local guides with the Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education (BFREE).

Students played a major role in the expedition.  UNCW Environmental Sciences graduate student, James Abbott, and undergraduate student, Dalton Jackson, along with snail expert, Dan Dourson, conducted systematic bird and snail surveys in and around a Harpy Eagle nest site discovered previously by Rotenberg and BFREE avian technicians, William Garcia and Liberato Pop. 

“Dalton, the BFREE technicians and I ended up identifying about 2/3 of the known bird species found at this site during only 10 days in the rainforest,” said graduate student, Abbott.  “At the same time, we carried out systematic ground surveys for snails with Dan, finding a high diversity of snails maintained in this rainforest as well as discovering several new species that are totally unknown to science.”

At the same time, the UCSD – E4E team consisting of engineering undergraduate student, Sebastian Afshari, staff engineer, Eric Lo, and Principal Development Engineer, Curt Schurgers, operated fixed-wing and quadcopter drones to capture the first high-definition and near-infrared “Structure-from-Motion” photogrammetry images of the BFREE protected area and the Bladen Nature Reserve. “We used the fixed-wing Unmanned Autonomous Vehicle to gather data amounting to 700 hectares of rainforest to survey the breeding territory of this extremely rare Harpy Eagle pair that nests in the area,” said Afshari.  “In addition, we were able to collect imagery with the drone airplane for the BFREE-protected reserve, allowing Rotenberg and BFREE Director, Jacob Marlin, to make comparisons of forest structure and health.”

The main focus of the grant work was directed at examining how the tropical rainforest ecosystem works.  “We wanted to find ecosystem connections for top-down and bottom-up ecosystem control,” said Rotenberg.  “It is assumed that a large rainforest reserve like the Bladen protects everything, but just how well this is working is unknown. Our job was to find connections within the food chain from our top-predator, the Harpy Eagle, down the chain to its food, and so on down the line to who eat the snails.”

Rotenberg and his colleagues previously discovered the only known nesting pair of Harpy Eagles in Belize after the species was thought to be extinct in the region.  From observations at the nest, the eagles eat mostly opossums and the raccoon-like coatimundi, as well as monkeys.  Yes, Harpy Eagles are that big!  Past studies have shown that these smaller mammals eat lots of snails, especially several kinds of snails that Rotenberg’s team found commonly at the field site.  With these data and the data from the drone flyovers, Rotenberg plans to eventually produce a model for the distribution of Harpy Eagle territory across the rainforest.

The secondary focus was to explore a 240-foot deep sinkhole nearby the Harpy Eagle nest site and to discover what truly was “bottom up” in the Reserve. To achieve this, Rotenberg recruited Kasia Biernacka and Pawel Skoworodko, both members of the US Deep Caving Team from Poland, as experts to carry out the descent into the hole.  Several days were spent setting up equipment and rope lines for the descent until Kasia and Pawel felt secure about having others descend as well.  The E4E team made the descent with all of their equipment and the quadcopter so the team could map and collect imagery of the hole.  “It was like lowering ourselves into the lost world with ferns and small trees covering the bottom of the sinkhole,” said Eric Lo.

The entire team is now back from the rainforest but the exploration doesn’t stop there.  Rotenberg and his team are already planning the next expedition, and presented expedition findings at a large professional conference in Washington D.C., co-sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution. Rotenberg, Schurgers and Lo are co-authors along with students, Afshari and Abbott, on two poster presentations for the Sixth North American Ornithological Conference. “For one poster, we are highlighting our accomplishments for flying drone missions in the difficult, humid terrain of the rainforest, and our ability to collect cloud-free visual and near-infrared data, similar to satellite imagery, for conservation work such as what Dr. Rotenberg is doing”, said Schurgers.  “For the second poster,” said Rotenberg, “we are connecting the dots from Harpy Eagles to opossums and raccoons (coatimundis) down to snails – or – maybe its really snails up to opossums and raccoons to Harpy Eagles,” said Rotenberg.  “You’ll just have to see our poster, which will be made available on-line soon.”