Students gain hands-on experience with Brazilian ecosystem

Studying snakes in Brazil.A group of SUNY Oswego students spent part of their summer gaining hands-on experience with flora and fauna while helping chart the ecological future of the Brazilian Pantanal region.

The Pantanal is like the Florida wetlands, “100 years ago,” before development encroached upon it, said Cleane Medeiros of SUNY Oswego’s biological sciences department. Medeiros teaches the Biology 393 international environmental studies class that allowed six Oswego students to spend 10 days in this vast, flat and ecologically vital region half the size of California.

The largest contiguous wetland on earth, the Pantanal sits mostly (70 percent) in Brazil, with parts in Bolivia and Paraguay. The student researchers are part of an effort by the Brazilian government to study the region before determining how much of it to open to development.

“At some point, Brazil is going to decide what parts of this region are going to be developed and which parts will be preserved as is,” Medeiros said. “We are paying a very heavy price to fix the mistakes” of modernized development in other parts of the world, she added, and the way the Pantanal floods and drains means any development will impact the rest of the region.

The enormous, often flooded region is home to 124 species of mammals, 218 types of amphibians and reptiles, 423 varieties of birds, 325 species of freshwater fish and around 3,500 types of plants.

Medeiros said 95 percent of the region is privately owned, which creates yet another challenge for those who want to keep large portions of it wild. Anything researchers can do to let the region’s residents know about the biodiversity of species inhabiting the Pantanal can help raise awareness of the importance of preservation, Medeiros said.

For the course, lessons began back at SUNY Oswego on not just the ecosystem but also Brazilian politics, culture, economy and history so the students were prepared before flying to Brazil on June 12.

In the field, the Oswego students joined nine students from two Brazilian universities for daily excursions to check traps they have set for native species.

The students collected the animals for lab work in a government research farm that includes measuring, marking, weighing and notating creatures before releasing them alive in the same area the next day. All the information is entered into the ongoing biological survey.

While the work supports a project studying the future of a key ecosystem, Medeiros said Oswego’s participants benefit from hands-on research and interaction with a variety of species, as well as an opportunity to learn about, and from, another culture.

The natural beauty of the region is another reward. “The wildlife is so abundant,” Medeiros said. “The animals you see on the way to the field are amazing. It’s a paradise for bird-watchers. We often stop and discuss the wildlife we see.”

The students also know they are part of a larger effort studying wildlife’s place in the modern world. “The survey reinforces the importance of the environment and the need for education on the impact of development, all while allowing students to gain local ecological knowledge,” Medeiros said.

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PHOTO CAPTION: Hands-on work—A half-dozen SUNY Oswego students spent the middle of June in Brazil’s Pantanal region interacting with native species while supporting a survey charting the ecological future of the region. Shown handling snakes during last year’s program are Brazilian professor and herpetologist Vanda Ferreira (left) and SUNY Oswego zoology major Kyle Pursel. The Brazilian government sponsors the field survey, which it will use to determine which parts, if any, of the large biodiverse wetlands should become open to development.

(Posted: Jun 18, 2009)

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