Students in Focus: Charles Van Rees, PhD Candidate

Originally published in the Tufts Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Newsletter    November 2014
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Some scientists work in sterile labs, others travel to remote and inhospitable regions, and starting from the summer of 2014 Biology doctoral student Charles van Rees’ summers will be spent in O`ahu, Hawai’i (sometimes spelled “Oahu, Hawaii”). As a Fellow with the Water Diplomacy IGERT (Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship), Charles studies the intersections of science, society, wildlife, and politics with respect to water networks –freshwater, in particular. “Fresh water is one of the big ways humans interact with ecosystems,” Charles says, “and with water use it is hard to quantify and see how we are affecting wildlife populations.”

Behavioral ecology and conservation biology are Charles’ academic passions – in fact, it was the research of his faculty advisor, Dr. Michael Reed, in these fields that sparked his interest in Tufts, and it was Dr. Reed who introduced Charles to the Water Diplomacy IGERT. His research into the movement behaviors of the endangered Gallinule bird is a natural fit, and gives him an opportunity to further explore the issues surrounding wildlife preservation and water use as they play out in the wetland ecosystems of O`ahu. Plus, Charles says, “You don't have to twist my arm to go to Honolulu a few times a year.”

He has pursued this project since 2012, and flew for the first time to Hawai’i last summer to begin research in earnest. The Gallinule bird used to flourish on the islands, but Charles explains “due to rapid urbanization and water use many of these wetlands have been lost; additionally, new predators like cats have been introduced to the environment, which resulted in the near extinction of the bird in the 50s and 60s.” Now extinct on all but two islands, less than one thousand of these birds are alive worldwide.

The birds are very sparsely dispersed on the island, with substantial habitat fragmentation. This is the foundation of Charles’ research: the question of whether these habitat fragments interact – so the entire Gallinule population on O`ahu might be considered as a whole – or if these fragments act as isolated sub-populations – which would make the bird much more sensitive to climactic or man-made crises. An accurate understanding of the birds’ full migration patterns is critical, particularly given a recent observation by another Tufts graduate student that a Gallinule had flown from O`ahu’s north shore to the south shore. This contradicts the accepted idea that these sub-populations did not interact at all, and necessitates this new research.

Now, Charles works to determine the extent of the birds’ movement, and where that movement occurs. Logistically, manual banding of the birds and continuous surveying is the only way to track the birds effectively. Because he cannot be on O`ahu throughout the entire year, Charles has enlisted support from the people of O`ahu: “We began a citizen science approach, and started a volunteer network called Ike na Manu, to get the public involved. It’s whoever wants to go and survey these wetlands, and if you see birds or if you don’t see birds just let us know. We also ask them to let us know if they see a particular bird wearing a colored band, which are specifically coded for each bird so we would know where that bird had been and where it is now.”

Meanwhile in Medford, he continues work with O`ahu wetlands through work that addresses the viability of artificial wetlands as a solution to impending water management issues on the island and this species’ endangered status. He says, “Wetlands are sometimes called the ‘kidneys’ of the land, filtering freshwater and recharging groundwater, so they are seen as an essential part of this process. Artificial wetlands are often used to provide these functions where they are lacking, so I am seeing if this would work to fix the water problems on O`ahu while helping this endangered species.”

Due to the sensitivity of land use in Hawai’i this type of solution has not been examined in depth before, and Charles points to the interdisciplinary focus of the Water Diplomacy program as essential to the process of coming up with a solution that is beneficial to all involved. These are the types of issues he hopes to pursue in the future, as well. He is interested in international conservation in the nonprofit sector, and hopes to enrich his specialization in biology by embracing an interdisciplinary approach.

He sees this type of work as “much more difficult than working domestically, because other countries are much more on the front lines of conservation, because their biodiversity issues are compounded by the needs of economic development, and we have to figure out how to integrate those two things.” He hopes to make a difference as a trained biologist with all the theory and rigor of hard academic training who can also communicate with politicians and decision-makers. For now, he will continue his work in Hawai’i – investigating the Gallinule species and inspiring citizen action.