On December 28, 2013, a team of Simon’s Rock students, faculty and staff arrived in Montserrat for a month-long intersession to study the island’s ecology. The four-credit course in sustainability and tropical ecology includes training in ecological survey methods.

Follow the progress of Greig Fields ’12, Ian Hetterich ’12, Naomi Pitman ‘12, Taylor Polster ’10, Nathan Sadowsky ’12, Nate Shoobs ’12, Sam Yarmis ’10, Molly Ziegler ’11, Clara Woolner (Bard College), Tom Coote (faculty and program director), Bob Schmidt (faculty), and Virginia Jeffries (staff) as they chronicle their research and adventures.

Ian Hetterich and Nathan Sadowsky catching fish in a ghaut (ravine) with Bob Schmidt.

Week 2

by Ian Hetterich, Nate Shoobs, and Nathan Sadowsky

Our second week in Montserrat began pretty much like any other day in a Simon’s Rock classroom. We were all gathered around a table with our professors, engaged in active discussion, much like we would have been at school. Everything seemed normal, until you looked up and saw the gorgeous view of the Caribbean Sea from the deck we were sitting on.

The topic of the day’s discussion was Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle, particularly the depth and array of his observations during the voyage, which led us to talking about our own papers. Earlier that morning we received our formal assignments for our final papers. The papers could be on almost anything we wanted, from describing the trip as a whole and our studies with the professors, to discussing a side project embarked upon, examining a specific species on the island, or even looking at the intriguing agricultural situation on Montserrat. With this in mind, many of us spent the week focusing on our own side projects and going on group expeditions.

Molly Ziegler has been looking at specific species of caterpillar on the island. On our trip to the Montserrat Botanical Gardens, we discovered an interesting caterpillar feeding upon the Frangipani tree. Molly has been feeding, caring for, and studying these caterpillars since then. When they eventually form their cocoons and then emerge, they will be Giant Grey Sphinx Moths; the caterpillars sometimes go by the common name, Mollyboobies.

Montserrat-sized caterpillar: Giant Grey Sphinx Moths, commonly known as Mollyboobies.

Sam Yarmis, on the other hand has taken a great interest some of the marine snails found on the island. While there are many snails to be found on the beaches and reefs, Sam’s snails may be the most interesting of them all. Sam didn’t think much of the first one she found. It had spines and looked interesting enough to pick up, but that seemed about it. About half an hour later, Sam noticed her finger had turned purple. Apparently, this specific species of snail releases a clear liquid and with exposure to sunlight it dies things purple (in the past, a Mediterranean relative of these snails was used to dye purple clothes, making purple cloth an expensive luxury and leading to its association with royalty). Since finding these snails and discovering their amazing property, Sam has been hard at work collecting and learning all she can about them.

Snails are not the only gastropods of interest on the island. Nate Shoobs, Ian Hetterich, and Nathan Sadowsky have all been looking at some of the islands more interesting slugs. After chance encounters on night walks, they found two different types of land slugs, neither of which have been described on Montserrat. Both species look incredibly interesting but they have yet to make an exact identification. Both are in the family Veronicellidae, but narrowing it down further has proved difficult. We also found numerous semi-slugs, something none of us had ever seen or heard of before. Semi-slugs are about halfway between a snail and a slug, with only a partial shell that they cannot retract into.

These few things only manage to barely touch on everything we have been doing. We are all learning so much about the things we have found, both from research and careful observation, just like Darwin, and we are still finding more, some of our findings may even be publishable. In addition to all these side projects, we have all still been going on group expeditions. Today, we managed to completely lose our way in our attempts to find a Mangrove Forest. On Tuesday we made our first trip to the less heavily settled other side of the island, which revealed a slightly different flora and fauna. This has been an incredibly exciting week, and while we will all be sad to see Bob Schmidt leave at the end of it, we are also all excited to begin working on ornithology with Andy Cassini (a graduate student from the University of Wisconsin Madison studying Montserrat Oriole) starting next week.

Greig Fields, Bob Schmidt, Nate Shoobs, and Nathan Sadowsky hunting for snails and fish in the Ghaut near Bunkum Beach.

Week 1

by Sam Yarmis, Molly Ziegler, and Taylor Polster

It’s been an eventful first week in Montserrat. The team arrived on Saturday after a long day of traveling and spent the week exploring the island. We went to the nearby Runaway Ghaut twice this week. It’s a deep ravine, with a small stream carrying rainwater down from the mountains to the sea. We found several species of both freshwater and marine snails, some really interesting semi-slugs (which look like slugs with tiny little shells on their backs), and an enormous South American land snail.

Another day, the group went snorkeling at Woodlands Beach. We observed reefs in two separate areas with huge varieties of fish: sergeant majors, great barracuda, blue-headed wrasse, blue tang, starry night fish, damselfish, mahogany snapper, brown chromis, surgeon fish, stippled clingfish, and a three-fin fish. Taylor cooked up our catch for a tasty lunch! There were also several spiky black sea urchins, from which we maintained a distance.

One difficulty has been getting around the island. With its steep volcanic hillsides vehicles are not just a luxury. We originally had a huge 1980’s Land Rover, on loan from Coral Cay, as well as a regular car, which made it easy enough to get around. On our second day here, however, when attempting to leave a remote beach, Tom popped the clutch wrecking the gear box. Now we’re reduced to the Rav4 shuttling people back and forth, with people sitting in entirely legal seats the whole time, of course. It’s not like we’re packing students into the trunk or anything. 

Clara Woolner, Nate Shoobs, Greig Fields, Taylor Polster, Bob Schmidt, Sam Yarmis preparing to snorkel for the first time.

We’ve also had some time to experience the local culture. Throughout the month of December, Montserrat holds its Festival, which consists of contests, parades, and lots of dancing. We had a chance to go to the show on New Year’s Eve, in which a large group of children of widely varying ages performed a masquerade, and three other children (including a very talented boy of about four) sang, rapped, and danced. We were lucky to make friends with the emcee, Gregory, who recommended the goat water (a delicious goat stew/soup, and Montserrat’s national dish) and introduced us to the morning radio host (named Basil and/or Christmas). 

Taylor with a stippled clingfish

On New Year’s Day, several of us went to the parade, the culmination of Festival. The parade consisted of various Montserrat pageant queens, the winners of Montserrat Idol, the masquerade dancers from the previous night, several groups of children in colorful costumes, and a bunch of very large trucks blasting music. We saw our friend from last night, Gregory.

We plan to spend the next few days snorkeling and finding more fish, and we’re all looking forward to our future adventures!

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