Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Ecology of Georgia's St Catherines Island

"Especially in view of global sea level change, barrier islands are almost like the canaries in the coal mine," says Anthony Martin, a paleontologist in Emory's department of environmental studies. Martin researches trace fossils and ecology in the maritime forests, marshes and beaches off the Georgia coast. He also leads classes on field trips to the region. “The Georgia barrier islands are world class. I want students to be aware of what an incredible resource they have that’s more or less in our back yard,” he says.

Dolphins swim along the coast of Saint Catherines Island (above) and an alligator floats in the marsh (below). Photos by Carol Clark.

Most people have never heard of Saint Catherines Island, a restricted research preserve, where exotic imports like lemurs co-exist with native species. The public is not allowed access to the island’s interior. But a group of Emory and Oxford College students spent three days exploring the island last Spring, on a field trip led by Martin and Oxford geologist Stephen Henderson.

The group stayed in former slave cabins made of tabby and harvested a meal of quahog clams from the pristine marsh. Saint Catherines’ superintendent Royce Hayes, who has lived on the island for 30 years, told the students stories about the Guale Indians who created mysterious shell rings on the island thousands of years ago, and the violent history of the 16th-century Spanish mission known as Santa Catalina de Guale. Island ornithologist Jen Hilburn introduced the students to the American Oystercatcher, a colorful wading bird whose population is threatened.

“The island is our textbook,” Martin says. “We just go out into the field and I know I’m going to see a new edition of the textbook. There’s going to be something that I haven’t seen before, and I get to share in that joy of discovery with the students.”

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