Most of my early childhood memories are full of nature scenes, from mud covered feet to the magnificent view one can only get from the treetops. Growing up in Central New York, where the winters are long and very cold, when spring hits (and for as long as the weather holds) everyone is outside as much as possible. I grew up at the extreme end of this spectrum, spending hours catching frogs to see the variation between them, counting the number of newts crossing my path to see if there were changes from year to year, and staying up to all hours of the morning to watch Monarch butterflies emerge from their chrysalises. I could not get enough.
The one thing I did not understand at this early age was that playing with all these interesting species could actually turn into a career. Throughout high school my path began to emerge. Already knowing I wanted to pursue biology, I remember taking economics and peace studies classes simultaneously and just thinking okay, here it is, there is no way we are going to be able to protect species without understanding what drives people to do the things they do. In other words conservation biology cannot stand alone and progress at the necessary rate.
The beginning of a career
But it was not until I began my undergraduate degree that I really started to understand what career I might be able to have, and how I might be able to merge my love for the natural world with my notions of what it would take to protect species. Most importantly, during my time in undergrad, I found a true passion for a certain group of endangered species: the iguanas! In the spring of 2000, Dr. John Iverson gave me an experience that changed my life forever.
As a first year at Earlham College, Dr. Iverson accepted me to participate in a spring break trip to the Bahamas where we would conduct field research with a species of iguana found primarily on only two small islands. As I caught my first iguana in the warm Caribbean sun, I knew that this is what I would be doing for the rest of my life. I was of course being hopeful at the time, but I did go on to complete my Ph.D. research on iguanas, and today I am still working to protect and manage iguanas as a postdoctoral research associate at the SDZG Institute for Conservation Research.
A holistic approach to iguana conservation
As a whole, iguanas are the most endangered group of lizards in existence. They are found primarily in North America and the Caribbean, and are important seed dispersers. In many areas, iguanas are the primary seed disperser for plants native to tropical dry forests. Without iguanas, these ecosystems, which are some of the most endangered in the world, would likely crash. The large and impressive stature of iguanas also makes them great flagship species for conservation.
Coming back to my childhood notions, one of the most important lessons that I have learned from nearly 15 years of working in iguana conservation is that conservation must be approached in a holistic way. The way I approach this is by using aspects of ecology, genetics, and education to create a program in which important aspects of both the biology of the species and the cultural heritage of the area are taken into account when developing management strategies. In other words, there is a real art to saving species, one that is not developed overnight and one that cannot be learned in a classroom alone, but from working on the ground, completely immersing oneself into the environment.
Stesha Pasachnik, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Associate, Applied Animal Ecology Division.