Students and faculty in the Field Marine Biology course navigate the shoreline in Baja California Sur during a field trip.
Although Colorado State University students experience the wilds of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains regularly, studying whales, sea turtles, and marine fish in the College of Natural Sciences’ Department of Biology has largely been an academic exercise – until this year.
This summer term, seven eager undergraduate students spent nearly three weeks in the field – and on the water – in the first Field Marine Biology course at CSU’s Todos Santos Center in Baja California Sur, Mexico. The study abroad course brought students to the biologically rich area, where they could experience animals and ecosystems in the Pacific Ocean as well as in the Gulf of California.
Shane Kanatous, associate professor of biology, and Graham Peers, assistant professor of biology, led the class. There, “students get to observe how small changes in location or human behaviors can lead to vastly different patterns of marine life,” Peers said. “I can think of no better place in the world to experience such a diversity of marine ecosystems.”
Famous for biodiversity
While at Todos Santos, the students also observed the impact of humans on the marine environment by interacting with local fishing communities and exploring Marine Protected Areas, including Cabo Pulmo National Park, home to a unique coral reef. The biodiversity there is famous, even outside the scientific field. In the 1940s, author John Steinbeck described “the complexity of the life pattern on Pulmo Reef,” discovering, upon closer examination that “clinging to the coral, growing on it, burrowing into it, was a teeming fauna.”
“Baja California is a narrow strip of Sonoran Desert with mountain peaks, the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Sea of Cortez on the other,” said Mike Antolin, chair of the Department of Biology. “This location provides hugely diverse ecosystems with stark contrasts, a world of extremes essentially in our backyard. The accessibility of unique perspectives is key for our students’ development both as scientists and world citizens. Todos Santos provides both, within half a day’s [air] travel from Fort Collins.”
This summer’s field program allowed students to roll up their sleeves and sample organisms, compare the ecology of the two coasts of Baja California, and learn about the importance of various communities. “This gives our students another place to study marine biology, which is one of the main motivators biology students have for study abroad,” Antolin added.
The individual students brought a variety of backgrounds, interests and aspirations.
“The Todos Santos program is especially important to me because this is how I will gain the field experience to decide how I would like to make an impact to better the world,” said Grace Komatz in a student-led fundraising campaign to help support the trip. A certified open-water diver, she explained that “I’ve been intrigued with marine mammal diving physiology, and the chance to work so closely with experts on the subjects is one of the most incredible opportunities that I’ve ever had.”
Other students anticipated discovering new passions. “I am excited about this incredible opportunity, especially since I live in a landlocked state,” said Bethan Pulham. “I look forward to having my eyes opened up to the abundance of life around Baja California Sur.”
Growing community through science
The center, opened by CSU in 2015, is naturally appealing to the biology department for its location near so many marine science opportunities. But the area is also rich in culture and in higher education. The town sits just across the peninsula from the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur in La Paz, which has a strong marine biology program and regularly partners with CSU on research and exchange.
Earlier this year, the department organized a Computational Biology and Genomics Workshop for local students, taught by CSU faculty Kim Hoke, associate professor; Tai Montgomery, assistant professor; and Dan Sloan, assistant professor – with local help from Aines Castro Prieto. “Making connections with the local biologists and researchers near Todos Santos was a really valuable experience,” Sloan said. The college hopes for a permanent program across departments in which CSU students will be able to travel to Todos Santos workshops to learn alongside their Mexican counterparts.
The biology department is also working with CSU partners through the One Health Research Initiative on establishing biological research projects that integrate human health into a full ecosystem view.
“The Todos Santos Center is a unique construct for the university,” said Jan Nerger, dean of the College of Natural Sciences. “It affords our faculty the opportunity to engage our students in research, teaching, and outreach in an international setting. We are excited to expand our programs and build on the relationships we’ve already forged.”