We have all been there; explaining your work to friends and family at a birthday party/bbq/etc. Now I always do my utmost best to make it as understandable as possible, but I often fail miserably in the process… Luckily, I recently discovered a short video that provides a clear introduction to one of our most challenging problems; speciation! Moreover, it features my beloved Birds-of-Paradise! I soon hope that our work will provide an interesting twist to the story, but until then I think this is a perfect introduction!
I’m writing you from Mataura, the capital of Tubuai, the main island of the Austral region and in the southern province of French Polynesia. A sentence that is obviously too long, but I hope helpful to specifically indicate where I am at the moment… The last two weeks have been quite adventurous, but unfortunately the internet connection is reminiscent of Woudenberg in 1995 and thus, uploading messages often takes longer than my patience can bear. I finally found a relatively stable connection and here is a short recap of my past two weeks.
Yes, dear readers, that is French!
I have arrived in French Polynesia and approximately 10 min. after touchdown, I realized I should have paid more attention during French lessons in high-school. But all good, for the non-frenchies, ‘on-y-va’ means as much as ‘let’s go’ and refers to my imminent fieldwork throughout Polynesia, from which I will occasionally report in these digital annals!
Ever since starting my work on Cryptoblepharus lizards, I have been fascinated about the geographic distribution of these little critters. While being a relatively ‘young’ genus (meaning they likely weren’t present when the world was one big pancake and all continents stuck together), they have an enormous distribution with representatives in Eastern-Africa, Australasia and large parts of the Pacific (from Fiji to Easter-Island, Hawaii and even Japan). For a little map, see the ‘research’ section of this website and scroll down to the bottom! I am very interested in understanding how such little lizards can cross vast oceans and to what extent human migrations might have played a role in all of this. Simultaneously, studying lizards on islands can learn us more about the evolution of similar species on continents and thus I initiated a collaborative project where A) we are aiming to study relationships between all Cryptoblepharus skinks (globally) and B) further explore the presence and habitat use of these lizards on some remote islands. Lastly but not less important, by surveying such remote regions we can actually map the diversity (in this case lizards) of these areas and potentially report on species new to science and/or assess the vulnerability of such island endemics. With the awesome support of National Geographic and the Mohamed Bin Zayed fund for species conservation, I am fortunate enough to do such research on a large number of islands in French Polynesia. The reason I am specifically here, is because although some preliminary data is known for this region, unfortunately there were no tissue samples (from which I could extract DNA) for genetic analysis. So I know that these lizards are here, we just lack data for them and furthermore, there are a number of unique island characteristics which make these islands fascinating places to study! But more about that on another occasion…
Anyhow, I’ve been drifting off again talking about my research, whereas I was only planning to shortly report that I arrived safe and sound. I left cold and windy Canberra, Australia, this morning around 4:30 AM. and via Sydney, Auckland and ultimately Papeete airport, I am now in a hostel close to the harbor of Papeete. Tomorrow, I’ll hop on a ferry to Moorea, where I’ll meet the good folks from the UC Berkeley Gump field station, where I will stock on supplies, gather some info and deliver some TimTams for all their help, before ultimately heading off to my first stop on this trip, the Austral islands. On y va!
Where do species come from? It seems like a simple question, but has baffled scholars in Biology for many generations. Both from an evolutionary (‘How do species change and result in new species?’) and biogeographic (‘What can we learn about the evolutionary history of species from their current spatial distribution’) perspective. And why would we even bother one might ask? Well, if we can understand how species reach new regions, change and ultimately persist, we can start to understand what are the major factors that promote biodiversity in any specific region. I often feel that people tend to believe that biodiversity is an abstract concept that is only of importance for hippies and other nature lovers, but in fact, a stable biodiverse community has major impacts on climate, our natural resources (from water reservoirs to agriculture) and yes, our general well-being. Therefore, I am dedicated and motivated to study the natural world and for my PhD research I am focusing on a specific group of lizards that lend themselves extremely well for studying such questions!
On the other pages of this website, you can find a more detailed and ‘nerdy’ outline of some of the questions I am working on, but in this blog I will mainly provide short casual stories on fieldwork follies and hopefully can be tech savvy enough to also accompany them with some visual frills, to increase the drama. One last note, for readers of my soon to be ancient original travel blogs, you might remember that spelling errors and grammatical inconsistencies were a theme throughout all my stories. I don’t believe that has changed, and might even have increased while living Down Under… I kind of write as how I talk, sometimes a bit chaotic, but I prefer to write anyways than not to write at all… Although some people might prefer me not to talk at all, if that analogy really holds up… As you can see, this is going to be a very casual recollection of thoughts and short stories!