Academic journal

Rebecca Ward-Diorio: diving into Galapagos research

PROVIDENCE, RI [Brown University] — The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have been phenomenal, and new scuba diver Rebecca Ward-Diorio wants to know how far the effects of the pandemic are going, especially in Galapagos Island marine communities.

A rising senior at Brown University focusing on ecology, organismal and evolutionary biology, Ward-Diorio is studying how pandemic-imposed restrictions that have drastically reduced human travel may have affected the archipelago of Galápagos and the surrounding marine reserve.

Under the guidance of biology professor Jon Witman and funded by the Maria L. Caleel ’87 Undergraduate Biology Fellowship, Ward-Diorio is spending the summer of 2022 diving into the depths of the Pacific Ocean with the aim of document the impact of this decrease in human presence (and sharks and sea lions) on the biodiversity of the Galápagos.

Every few days, Ward-Diorio goes out into the open water on a dive boat powered by a 300 horsepower motor. At the site, she adjusts her oxygen cylinder and gathers cameras and other equipment, including underwater clipboards, pencils and waterproof paper, which allow her to take notes when she is fully immersed.

She spends at least an hour below the surface of the sea, at depths of 18 feet, 45 feet and sometimes even more. She partners with Brown’s postdoctoral student Robert Lamb to conduct fish counts to record species, size, number and location. She also takes photos and learns about the different types of fish in the area. She will use these underwater observations and data when she returns to Brown’s campus in the fall of 2022 and resume her senior thesis project, a requirement for Brown’s biology concentrators.

Ward-Diorio said she sees the synergy between her classes at Brown and her fieldwork, from classes on wildlife conservation and protection to more general invertebrate biology classes.

“It was so fun to be able to apply what I learned in class to my job here,” Ward-Diorio said. She also learned from scientists around the world who came to Galapagos to conduct research.

Brown students Glennie LeBaron and Becca Ward-Diorio on a research trip to the Galápagos

The Galápagos National Park is considered one of the world’s top diving destinations, Ward-Diorio said. This isolated archipelago of islands 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador is home to a staggering number of endemic species, like the huge Galápagos tortoises and swimming iguanas that are hard to find elsewhere. Prior to 2020, over 200,000 people visited the area each year. But global travel restrictions instituted in response to the pandemic have dropped that number to almost no visitors.

Ward-Diorio will measure this side effect of the pandemic by analyzing species richness and fish responses to humans as well as sharks and sea lions. When she returns to Brown in the fall, she will review the videos of six Galapagos sites, three with historically high diver presence and three with historically low diver presence, for years that have a full day of user-recorded video. Analyzing data from October 2020 to the present, she will study fish diversity to see if it has changed based on the frequency and number of visits by humans, sharks and sea lions to each of the sites.

A flagship experience

Ward-Diorio received her advanced open water diving certification in the spring of 2022, which was one of the last things she needed to do to prepare for a trip she had been planning since her freshman year at Brown.

“This research opportunity is truly the highlight of my educational experience at Brown so far,” Ward-Diorio said.

It is also one of the highlights of his life as a marine enthusiast. Ward-Diorio grew up in Pennsylvania, but her heart has always been in Maine, where she was born and lived until she was six years old. Ward-Diorio’s family always returns to Maine for vacations, and the summer before Ward-Diorio entered fifth grade, his family took a detour to the New England Aquarium in Boston. Ward-Diorio was fascinated by the richness of aquatic life, and particularly charmed by seals and sea lions.

“From that moment I wanted to one day become a marine biologist and focus on seals as a field of study,” she recalls.

When Ward-Diorio decided to study at Brown, she focused on the work of Witman, who focused on marine ecology and conducted research in the Galápagos. Islands since the 1990s. During his first weeks at Brown, Ward-Diorio met a fellow biology student who had just returned from a trip to the Galápagos. with the Witman team. Ward-Diorio was intrigued; When the student invited her to a meeting with the Witman Lab, she met students who shared her passion for marine biology and she began volunteering on research projects.

“I wanted to get involved as much as possible, as quickly as possible,” recalls Ward-Diorio.