A Century in the Solomon Islands

by AMNH on

Research posts

For nearly a century, the Solomon Islands—an archipelago of nearly 1,000 islands just east of Papua New Guinea—have beckoned biologists from the American Museum of Natural History with an astonishing diversity of flora and fauna, from beautiful mollusks to reptiles and majestic bird species found nowhere else.

Hornbill Borokua Explore21
A hornbill photographed in the Solomon Islands by Museum researchers, 2013

Museum scientists first traveled to the Solomon Islands in the early 20th century as part of the historic Whitney South Sea Expedition. The legendary 19-year voyage helped the Museum amass the world’s largest collection of birds by the time it ended in 1939.

Two-masted schooner used by AMNH trip to the Solomon Islands in 1920s
The Whitney South Sea Expedition, which explored the Solomons and other islands, began in 1920 and lasted nearly two decades. The researchers sailed aboard a 75-ton schooner, France, that had been built to carry copra, or coconut meat. 
© AMNH Library 117406

In the fall of 2013, a team of researchers set out for the Solomon Islands under the banner of an exciting new scientific initiative, Explore21, which is bringing new technologies and multi-disciplinary methods to field research and collections. Led by Curator John Sparks, the team looked for novel occurences of bioluminescence and biofluorescence in fishes, corals, and other marine organisms using submersibles, custom-built underwater low-light cameras, novel collecting methods, and on-board genomic sequencing tools. This work contributed to the first report of widespread biofluorescence, a phenomenon in which organisms absorb light, transform it, and eject it as a different color, in the tree of life of fishes.

"Alucia" research vessel at sea in the daytime
The Research Vessel Alucia allowed Museum researchers to explore the waters, mangrove forests, and coral reefs of Solomon Islands in 2013
© AMNH/John Sparks

From cloud forests to coral gardens, the Solomons offer a window into some of the largest contiguous island wilderness areas on Earth. For the last eight years, the Museum’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation (CBC), under the direction of Dr. Eleanor Sterling, has led major efforts to protect these sites.

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

Working with indigenous islanders, the CBC has built “conservation infrastructures”—bottom-up networks that fuel critical conservation efforts, including some of the largest protected areas in the region. The CBC also helped to advise the Solomon Islands government on passing the first-ever protected area legislation for the archipelago.

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

“Combining scientific discovery with investment in local governance, the CBC’s conservation work is improving local capacity to conserve the lush mosaics of forest and marine systems that inspired Museum scientists a century ago,” says CBC Director of Pacific Programs Chris Filardi. “And, as a result, we have a timeless opportunity to interact with a tropical Pacific that has vanished from nearly all other large archipelagos in the region.”

Creating and maintaining such opportunities is central to CBC’s mission and has informed its work around the globe since its founding in 1993. But the community-based work in the Solomon Islands offers particularly inspiring examples of how conservation can work in the 21st century.

Here’s just one recent example. In the waters off the coast of Tetepare, the largest uninhabited island in the South Pacific, the CBC is working with local rangers on a community-based wildlife monitoring program. Rangers and monitors there—members of the Tetepare Descendants’ Association, whose ancestors lived on Tetepare hundreds of years ago—train and work with CBC staff to survey populations of endangered green sea and leatherback turtles, coconut crabs, and large mollusks. In addition, the group monitors the prevalence of sea grasses that provide essential nursery areas for animals as well as food for marine mammals called dugongs.

Close-up of the head of a Solomon Islands turtle. Individual turtles have unique numbers and shapes of scales on the sides of their heads, so photos can help track individuals.
Individual turtles have unique numbers and shapes of scales on the sides of their head, so photographs such as this one can help track individuals.
Courtesy of Michael Esbach

“Through these efforts, we hope to not only improve the conservation of these marine animals, but to gain a better understanding of their mysterious life history,” says CBC Pacific Programs Manager Michael Esbach. “And we’re empowering local communities to steward everything that is unique and mysterious to Tetepare.”

A version of this story appears in the winter 2014 issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.