What are you doing for the next few months? Rachel Wheat, a University of California at Santa Cruz doctoral student in environmental studies, will be leaving Santa Cruz at the end of June to study how important the fall salmon run is to the terrestrial wildlife population, such as bears, wolves and eagles in Alaska. Although, you cannot join her, you can follow the expedition.
“One of the most exciting aspects of this research is looking at bald eagles' migratory behavior," she said. “Although we do know that some eagles can travel in excess of 1500 miles, scientists have no idea where they’re coming from.”
She and two other students, who will arrive later in the year, will be living in a pristine and remote location in southeastern Alaska, where the largest congregation of eagles in the world comes every fall to feast on salmon.
Because metal commodity prices have soared, the riparian corridors that she will be studying are threatened by proposed mining ventures. Gold and silver exploration could represent a financial motivation for the locals- another jobs vs. local ecosystem scenario.
“Runoff from mines could pollute the water, damaging fish habitat and the wildlife that feed on the fish,” said Wheat.
Scientist have theorized that the regional salmon run could potentially be supporting eagle populations across the western United States, perhaps in California or even Montana.
The Colorado native cautions that “if salmon runs are negatively impacted by mining or some fisheries management decision, the eagles in California and other places might not be able to survive without the salmon they are getting in Alaska in the winter.
The objectives for the research project- see where the eagles are coming from, where are they breeding, where are they spending their summers, and how far are they traveling every autumn.
To do this the biologists will use two methods:
1. Attach a satellite transmitter to an eagle. As the bird flies it will record GPS locations.
2. Collect feathers that eagles drop. By a chemical analysis the researchers will know where the feather was grown. Wheat said the birds “have a molting period where they lose their feathers during the summer and grow new ones. As they grow feathers they incorporate chemicals from
the ecosystem into the feathers and by analyzing them we can see where feathers were grown and that will give us an indication of where the bird was in the summer.”
“It’s hard to get funding, particularly for start-up costs for research projects, from traditional means,” said the student, who will have to pay for all her project expenses if she cannot obtain funding. “Originally scientists would use an organization like the National Science Foundation. You would develop a research proposal and submit it, and it would be reviewed and maybe 20% of the time you would get funding for the proposal.”
So the team decided to try a non-traditional funding source, kickstarter.com, an internet platform which has typically been used to support art or music projects.
Most scientists’ research projects are published in scientific journals that the general public will never get to read or understand. The “Alaska Predator Research Expedition” is different.
“We can appeal to a broader online community. People are interested in science inherently and want to know more about how science is done,” Wheat said. “We want to have a dialogue with scientists and the public. So by generating funding from a whole group of people we can communicate what we’re doing. This is an extremely recent development- to fund science. We are definitely one of the first.”
Since very few people will ever have the opportunity to go on a scientific expedition to the Alaska wilderness, Wheat believes that through the www.kickstarter.com site, “we’ll be developing ties with our funders.
"We’ll keep them updated during the entire course of our research. So they’ll be able to experience almost what we’re experiencing through videos we post on line, updates on our research, and photographs that we take in the field. They’ll get a really good feel for the region, and they’ll be able to see some of the incredible things we are seeing as we do our research but from the comfort of their own home.”
Luckily, Wheat will not be alone on her journey. She will be taking her new rescue dog, Rigby, named after the Beatle’s song "Eleanor Rigby," although he is a male. The team will drive up to Washington and then board a ferry to Haines, Alaska, where they will reside through November.
Although Rigby will have to stay in Wheat’s pickup for the 50+ hour trip, the UCSC student said she’ll be able to walk her dog on the ferry and take him out for exploring as the boat makes stops at the little towns along the way.
Her furry field assistant will be restricted to where he can go while in Alaska since the grizzly bears will be out in force for the salmon buffet.
To learn more about more about the “Alaska Predator Research Expedition” and the funding platform, www.kickstarter.com, click on http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1132209804/the-lost-world-documenting-alaskas-ecological-fron?ref=city.