It has been three months since I started this journey towards my PhD. There are still two months remaining until I officially start at the university. These past few months have been some of the best of my life. One of the most incredible experiences I have had so far has been attending the Mangrove & Macrobenthos Meeting (MMM4). Why after traveling to so many beautiful locations and seeing incredible wildlife that I’ve been dreaming about seeing since a child would a meeting be a highlight? Glad you asked. The MMM4 was a portal to this new world I am becoming a part of. I have always loved and admired mangroves and found them to be extremely fascinating. I have even worked in mangrove systems before but then the focus was on the fish in the mangroves rather than the mangroves themselves. The MMM series are international conferences which occur only once every 4-6 years and focus on understanding and conserving or sustainably utilizing mangrove ecosystems across the globe. The first MMM to be held was in 2000 in Kenya, then it was six more years before MMM2 in Australia, and MMM3 took place in 2012 in Sri Lanka. For the first time this meeting was held in the U.S. and I got to attend. Not only that, but many of the people I had been reading papers by were at the meeting. This was the “who’s who” of mangroves. It was also a great opportunity to meet many of the people I will be working with over the next 5 years and form new connections to build my mangrove network. I was shocked by how friendly and welcoming everyone was. I would sit by someone at the beginning of the day and during the breaks we would start talking, by lunch they would be introducing me to people who could be vital to my research, and by dinner I was making arrangements to go into the field with some of these new connections and getting recommendations of field sites that meet the criteria I’m looking for. Then the following day it started all over. By the end of the week, an auditorium of strangers was transformed into a room of friends and family.
I was glad I brought my laptop to the meeting because each presentation sparked a new idea and I wouldn’t have been able to write fast enough to jot down the important discoveries and future directions without my computer. The presentations varied in topic from genetics, biodiversity, and biocomplexity to ecology, habitat distribution and connectivity, to macrobenthos and marine community interactions, and stable isotope analyses of mangrove forest food webs to microbiome dynamics, ecogeomorphology, ecophysiology, and biogeochemistry to climate change and carbon storage. Even the species of mangrove people were working with drastically differed. Despite the MMM series sounding like a very specific conference, you have to keep in mind that mangroves, as we know them today, occur worldwide in the tropics and subtropics and are found in over 118 countries. The total number of true mangrove species is debated and varies between 54-73 in 20 different genera then there are even more mangrove associates which adds another 86 species from 73 genera. Then this meeting includes every topic relating to any of these species. Even though we had a room full of experts, each had their own niche and language to translate to the rest of us. One of the most surprising presentations to me was by NASA. Yes, the NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), you know those people who launch rockets into orbit and take satellite photographs of distant galaxies. Well those same people who brought us the Mars rover are using airborne LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) and Radar data to create high-resolution 3-dimensional maps of mangrove forests. I was familiar with radar before because we used doppler radar when I studied bats but LIDAR was new to me. How LIDAR works is it sends light pulses from a laser (ooh science) to Earth from some airborne vessel like an airplane or helicopter. Then a sensor records the reflected light combined with position and orientation data obtained from a specialized GPS receiver so you end up with latitude, longitude, and height data. Point by point you start to develop a picture known as a point cloud. These data can be used to not only study the forest structure and aboveground biomass but also to estimate the amount of carbon mangrove forests can store. Carbon captured by the world’s oceans and coastal ecosystems is known as blue carbon so carbon stored by mangroves is part of this blue carbon. It is important to understand the role mangroves play in carbon sequestration because mangroves are among the most carbon-rich forests in the tropics and deforestation of mangroves generates 10% of the global emissions per year despite accounting for only 0.7% of the tropical forests.
As scientists, the organizers of MMM4 realized that there is a saturation point at which no more knowledge can be absorbed, regardless of how pertinent or fascinating the subject, when you have a week-long meeting. Their solution was to get us all outside and into the field together. In the middle of the week we were given an option of going on a mangrove and marsh restoration tour at North Peninsula State Park and Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, a kayak tour of the Whitney Marine Lab, or a boat tour of the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve. Even though I was staying at the Whitney Marine Lab and knew the facility fairly well, I hadn’t gotten out on the kayak in the mangroves yet so I went with that option. It was a wonderful experience. We had professional guides who knew the local fauna meanwhile I’m kayaking with mangrove experts who kept paddling up to branches to get a good look at leaves, snails, propagules, etc. It wasn’t a day off from learning but the change of scenery renewed our energy and allowed us to return to the conference refreshed and eager to continue learning. The conference itself was held at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida. It was a beautiful campus with stunning Spanish architecture and just outside Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest masonry fort in the continental U.S. St. Augustine was founded in 1565 by the Spanish and has maintained its historical feel. It is unlike any other city I have visited in the U.S.
As I leave Florida to continue my adventure, my mind swirls with ideas and happy memories made over the past couple weeks here. It was both a pleasure and an honor to have had the opportunity to meet so many great minds. I am thankful to everyone who helped make my visit possible. The future looks bright and I am excited to return after my first semester at McGill.