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Explore21: In the Lost Lagoons

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From the Field posts

This month, Museum Curator John Sparks is leading The Explore21 Solomon Islands Expedition. A part of the Museum's Explore21 initiative, this three-week research journey is headquartered aboard the Research Vessel Alucia.

Expedition member  Chris Filardi, who is the director of Pacific Programs in the Museum’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, recently wrote in with this dispatch.

Nearly a century ago, the Museum’s Whitney South Sea Expedition brought the splendor and diversity of tropical Pacific islands to the forefront of the scientific world.

Solomon Islands CBC 2012
Sunset in the Solomon Islands, 2012
© AMNH/M. Esbach

Over the past decade, the Museum’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation’s Pacific Programs has returned to the Solomon Islands not only to revisit legendary sites surveyed in the past, but also to address daunting threats to some of the largest tracts of contiguous rain forest remaining in the tropical Pacific and to adjacent, hyper-diverse lagoons and coral reefs. 

Today, a suite of innovative partnerships and conservation initiatives has transformed a history of conflict and biodiversity loss into a model for community-driven conservation.  Combining scientific discovery with investment in local governance, conservation work is improving local capacity to conserve the lush mosaics of forest and marine systems that inspired Museum scientists a century ago.

Solomon Islands Kolombangara
Upland forests on the island of Kolombangara, in the Solomon Islands, one of the places where local people and the CBC collaborate to preserve land and animals. 
© AMNH/M. Esbach

As a result, from Alucia we can now investigate contiguous ecological gradients from cloudforest to reef and on to some of the deepest ocean on Earth—a timeless opportunity to interact with a tropical Pacific that has vanished from nearly all other large archipelagos on earth.

Mangrove Solomon Islands Explore21
Mangroves at the edge of a lagoon, Solomon Islands

Surveying remote lagoon systems associated with the famous Solomon reefs is one of our key objectives.  The iconic white sand and azure holes of coral lagoons are often overlooked in surveys of reef systems.  In the western Solomons, lagoons are everywhere and include some of the largest on the planet. Sampling has revealed a diversity crossroads and lots of new bioluminescent and fluorescent animals. 

Some fish spend their whole lives in lagoons and the stilt-rooted mangroves that line the hot, salty shallows providing a fortress of protection from the big predators of the reefs. Many reef species also inhabit lagoons as juveniles, but then migrate to reefs or other habitats when mature, so lagoons can have a variety of species that, as adults, may rarely or never be seen together.

Lagoon surveys have been rich and have turned up heaps of wonders, from worm eels and all sorts of moray eels that glow, stone fish whose toxic spines are deadly, puffed up puffer fish, gobies, blennies, electric blue-spotted sting rays.

Polka dots: The head of Blue-spotted ray

For Richard Gilder Graduate School student Dawn Roje, lagoons offer an opportunity to observe and collect data from two very different looking fish groups that she now knows are related: flatfish (think flounder and sole) and trevally or jacks (think amped-up, deep-bodied relative of mackerel that includes some of the most sought-after inshore gamefish in the sea). 

Dawn has been collecting larval and adult forms of eels, flatfish, and jacks wherever possible and the lagoon work has added a few key individuals including a gorgeous thumbnail-sized species, sand-colored with a velvety dark reticulate pattern on its upper, double-eyed side. 

Larval eel (Dawn Roje) Explore21
Larval eel

She’ll tell you about her work in an upcoming post.

Read more about the Solomon Islands and Explore21. 

Read more about the CBC's work in the Solomon Islands.