Science Interviews: Marc Albert

Marc Albert

Marc Albert, Boston Harbor Islands Stewardship Program Manager

Interviewed by Tara Weaver 10/30/2008


Background

What was the benefit of using a symposium format to exhibit Boston Harbor Islands’ research projects?

The format is great because it brings together a lot of people who are working in the field on different days in different places into the same room to share information. It brings together researchers, volunteers, students, interested members of the public, and also park managers, and provides a single place and time for all those folks who were interested in what’s going on to get a more comprehensive view. All you had to do was show up and listen and you got a pretty good snapshot of the science going on throughout the park.

How does science relate to the mission of the National Park Service and the Boston Harbor Islands?

The mission of the National Park Service has two main elements. One is to protect the natural and historic resources at the parks, and the other is to provide for the enjoyment of the park for this and all future generations. Science relates to both of those components of the mission. In order to protect the resources we need to understand what those resources are. At a very basic level, science is a systematic way of understanding the world around us, and thus science in the park is a way of understanding the worlds within the park—the "microwilderness" within the park that is explored by the ATBI project and all the other features we learned about too.

The Park Service has a varied history of science-based decision making. Long ago, bear shows were part of interpretation, and hunting of predators was thought to be a way to protect the resources that the visitors wanted to see, like large herds of grazing animals. Thanks to the pioneering efforts of people like George Melendez Wright, who was at the forefront of encouraging Congress and the Park Service to think about management of the resources of the parks in a scientific context, NPS now must use the best available science to make decisions that will meet our mission to protect resources. The research we heard reported on at the symposium can help us make management decisions to protect and restore the historic and natural resources, and natural processes, in the park.

The second part of the mission is providing enjoyment of the parks. Part of providing enjoyment is simply having protected open spaces, trails and views that provide contemplative experiences. The other part of it is providing educational and interpretive opportunities that relate directly to the resources at the park. The information we collect through the ATBI project for example, has been used to create posters, the “PredatOR-Prey” game, and curriculum–based educational programs.

The Scientists

At the Symposium scientists listed the following as some of the park's most alluring attributes: over 5,000 insect species; proximity to the city; and a clustering of individual ecosystems within minutes of each other. What more do the islands have to offer to scientist who wish to conduct research? Why should they come here?

The proximity to the city and the geography of the park—the urban wild-land interface—is the first piece of that. We are within minutes of a heavily developed area, and park lands have a long history of different land uses by different human groups, which reflects most of the metropolitan areas in the United States. Increasingly scientists are trying to understand the relationship between human activities and the natural world. There is a great opportunity here to research the ecology of human-influenced landscapes, ecosystems, species, and communities. We also saw multiple presentations that referred to island biogeography, which is one of the fundamental theories within the science of ecology relating to the diversity and distribution of species. Boston Harbor Islands is an archipelago of islands of varying sizes, varying distances from the mainland and varying land use histories. In a way that’s a perfect laboratory for island biogeographic analysis, again on multiple scales; the genetic scale, populations of individual species, and the community and landscape scale.

Just to clarify, are these areas that have already been tapped into, these areas of study?

Yes, but it’s almost unlimited. Island biogeography theory provides general testable hypotheses to which you can apply individual systems or individual species or groups of species in any category; birds, mammals, insects, etc. Really, the more research that’s done in one area, the more value additional research has because it can be placed in the context of the former research. In this case, the more groups of species we can asses according to island biogeography theory, the better we can understand and explain how species distribute themselves in coastal urban wild-land interfaces.

The Partnership

For members of the Partnership who did not attend the Symposium is there something that came out of the event that they might find particularly interesting?

In general what the Symposium reflected is that the thirty-four parcels that comprise Boston Harbor Islands national park area are being utilized as a cohesive unit of study. The fact that the Partnership works collaboratively to plan and manage the whole park provides researchers, students, and citizen science volunteers an opportunity to think broadly about what they can do in the park, and not think about which island is owned by whom, or the administrative or logistical components of the park. I think the breadth of talks we heard and the fact that no one really reflected on any administrative challenges reflects well on the Partnership doing a good job of presenting the park as a unified entity that is attractive both for visitors and for scientists.

How do you see the Partnership benefiting from the research?

The individual partners that are land owners benefit by learning more about the resources that they are directly responsible for managing. In addition, perhaps as much as any other aspect of park work, science is inherently an open ended, non-political way of thinking about the world, which can underscore the collaborative nature of the Partnership.

The Community

How has the presence of island research projects encouraged a sense of community in the park?

The citizen scientists, professional scientists, and students that are participating in these projects form a community of people that are discovering the park together. One of the goals for the Park Service in the park is to promote citizen science and community stewardship of park resources. The citizen scientists who monitored birds in the early mornings for the coastal breeding bird protocol, the students and volunteers who collected the insect traps or participated in the overnight studies as part of the ATBI—they have the deepest visitor experience possible in the park in that they experience the place while also directly contributing to our understanding of it.

Why is it important for the public to know about the scientific projects on the islands?

Boston Harbor is a unique place in the world and there is a unique human, ecological, and geologic history of this place. In general terms, it’s valuable for the public to have an opportunity to understand this specific place. For example, the geologic processes that shaped, and continue to shape the physical landscape of the Boston Basin, Boston Harbor, and the islands. Similarly, ongoing science is uncovering the “microwilderness” on the opposite scale. Within one square meter on the ground you have a tremendous amount of biodiversity that is hidden until it’s scientifically explored and shared.

As part of the ATBI the public is able to find data from the research being done on the islands by searching an online database. How do you see the public using the information they find through the ATBI database?

The database that was presented includes high resolution photographs of individual specimens linked to photographs of habitats, and the ability to search by place or by group of organisms. When completed, I could see students and teachers using it very actively from grade school through university for everything from field trips to biology lessons to spin-off research projects. It’s very exciting to think about this model being used in different places and for lots of different groups of organisms.

The Environment

Acknowledging that all elements of an ecosystem are vital, what specific research on the Boston Harbor Islands should the public know about if they’re interested in the park’s environmental protection efforts?

I think the public should know that the park is making a thoughtful effort to track changes in the environment that indicate coastal ecosystem health locally and regionally. "Vital signs" monitoring, which includes coastal breeding birds and intertidal organisms, are permanent monitoring projects. As we know, sea levels have been rising and the globe has been warming and that is going to have a profound impact on the environment around us.

These projects are specifically designed to help us track these important groups of resources over the long-term. Also important is the study of the hydrologic processes and the geomorphology of Boston Harbor. As the climate changes, and sea-level rises, there may be changes to large-scale patterns of sediment movement and the distribution and diversity of coastal ecosystems. Research can help us understand and predict these changes. For example, salt marshes occupy a specific elevation in coastal area. If sea-level rises, will salt marshes be able to rise to migrate to new locations?

Noting the comment made during the “Call for Future Research”; in your opinion is the research on the islands conducted in an ethical manner?

Yes, I do believe research is being conducted in an ethical manner. Each individual project is evaluated for its potential impacts and its potential value to conservation of park resources. The specific question related to using destructive methods of collecting insects in order to study them. I’m not an entomologist, but my understanding is that it’s a matter of scale and proportion, and the collection of a very small proportion of the organisms in a given area is extremely unlikely to effect the overall population of any individual species. On the other side, the benefit of discovering a rare species here is that we could take protective measures. It’s a worthwhile question, a worthwhile area of study even.

Behind the Scenes

Field research on an island must require a lot of planning and organization. What is the most difficult logistical element of doing research on the islands? How is it overcome?

Boat transportation. Boats are costly and time consuming. That’s just inherent in having an archipelago park; there’s going to be challenges with transportation to study sites for science. This is the other side of the value of having an opportunity to study an archipelago.

Did you have a chance to work along side any of the scientists? What you recommend about the experience especially for those of us without much of a science background?

Fortunately, I have had a chance to go out on many of the projects, at least once or twice. It is wonderful having things shown to you in a way that makes you realize how beautiful and inspiring the natural world is. Being out at sunrise on the intertidal bioblitz with a marine biologist was physically tiring but also unforgettable. It’s the same thing going out to do the bird monitoring, the biodiversity studies, the mammal work, the geological work—everything! There’s just so many ways to understand the natural world that are hidden from our perception. The scientists in this way are the guides to a fuller and richer understanding of the world around us.

Future

During the “Call for Future Research Needs on Boston Harbor Islands” was there a call from the audience that you found specifically interesting?

A couple people referred to the opportunity for synthesizing some of the different kinds of work that’s going on to get a broader picture. There was a presentation on the biogeography of the flora of the park, presentations on birds and intertidal organisms that referred to biogeography, and almost all of the ATBI projects have some relation to island biogeography. There seems to be an opportunity out there for developing an understanding of patterns that encompass multiple taxa and multiple studies.

Do you see another Science Symposium on the horizon?

Absolutely. It was five years between these past two science symposia. We haven’t decided when the next one will be but there continues to be very active science in the park. It is very likely that we’ll try to gather scientists and other interested folks and share what’s going on in the park before five years passes again, whether it’s another symposium or some other format. Similarly, we hope to continue to foster opportunities for citizen scientist volunteers and students to participate in the ongoing research.

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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