Tropics at a crossroads: FIU addresses changing planet through research, partnerships and policy

TropicsThe greatest concentration of biodiversity occurs in the tropics, especially in rainforests and coral reefs. Biodiversity is the diversity of life — from the largest predator to the smallest bacteria.

Located in the sub-tropics and with more than 30 faculty members working in the region, FIU is ideally situated for the study of biodiversity and conservation of the tropics — from the mountains to the forests to the oceans. The School of Environment, Arts and Society (SEAS) unites this research to promote a better understanding of tropical conservation, create opportunities for ground-breaking biomedical discoveries and develop sustainable production methods to address global food shortages.

According to scientists, 34 hot spots exist on the planet where 1,500 species unique to that area have lost at least 70 percent of their habitat. These hot spots occupy merely a quarter of the world’s land area, yet hold three-quarters of the world’s most threatened mammals, birds and amphibians in addition to half of all known higher plant species.

Last year, an international team of more than 200 scientists, including FIU biologist Maureen Donnelly, conducted a comprehensive examination of protected species in the tropics and concluded that protected areas in the tropics are struggling to maintain their biodiversity. Donnelly, who has spent decades researching amphibians and reptiles in the neotropical areas of Central and South America, has witnessed the drastic crash in species populations. She is quick to acknowledge that conservation must be a global team effort.

In 2013, the federal government awarded FIU a grant of nearly $750,000 to support environmental conservation efforts in the Andean Amazon region of South America. Led by SEAS Director of International Programs Elizabeth Anderson, FIU is developing a research collaboration network in Colombia through a partnership with Pontificia Universidad Javeriana and Universidad de la Amazonia.

“Our goal is to develop a greater scientific understanding of the unique and understudied ecosystems in the Colombian Andean Amazon by building education and research capacity within the country and then put the science to work for environmental conservation,” Anderson said.

Some, like biologist Steve Oberbauer, climb to the highest reaches of the Costa Rican rainforest canopies to explore how climate change affects plant life. Others, like marine scientist Deron Burkepile, dive to the depths of the sea to study the imperiled coral reefs. Their efforts rely on national and international collaborations.

While some reach across borders, others leverage the resources among South Florida’s living laboratories. The Kampong of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, Montgomery Botanical Center and Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens are three major facilities that provide resources to help FIU scientists understand the diversity, distribution and evolution of life in the tropics.

Professor Kenneth Feeley’s research has benefitted from these partnerships. The botanist is exploring predictors for the future of the Amazon, hoping to give policymakers, scientists and conservationists a roadmap to implement meaningful change. The role of scientists stepping out of the field and into the policy conversation is not a new concept, but one that FIU is championing through the formation of SEAS nearly four years ago.

“For our work to have a real, meaningful impact, we all must become better communicators to help those making the decisions — and people most affected by them — understand the complexity and importance of these habitats and ecosystems,” said Mike Heithaus, interim dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. “The only way our efforts will ever matter is if we can help others make sense of what we discover.”

Heithaus has spent his entire career studying top predators, including sharks and alligators, evaluating their global importance in protecting biodiversity. He has produced numerous scientific papers that call for very specific actions among international policymakers to protect these predators including protected status, stricter fishing laws and enforcement of existing policies.

James Fourqurean, director of the FIU Marine Education and Research Initiative, is leading his own charge, making a global plea for the world’s seagrasses. Dubbed the Blue Carbon Initiative, Fourqurean is asking governments to extend carbon credits to seagrass after proving these undersea meadows are as effective as rainforests in absorbing carbon dioxide from the Earth’s atmosphere. Last year, he made presentations around the world including testimony before the European Union Parliament in Brussels.

Meanwhile, faculty in the Department of Earth and Environment is exploring food security through a sustainable agriculture program that offers a particular emphasis on the tropics. The program includes research and community engagement to develop meaningful solutions.

“Our goal is to better our world,” Heithaus said. “When you consider our broad and diverse faculty expertise, our ideal location and the strategic focus of SEAS, FIU really is a solutions-center that can make a difference for generations to come.”

To learn more about the School of Environment, Arts and Society, visit