PhD research

Choosing a topic that is interesting today and will still be interesting for 4 years, is quite a difficult task. But I got lucky because I was offered to do some applied research with BIRDS!!!! The specific projects are still under work (I’m still designing my projects). But the overarching themes of my work are: community ecology, ecosystem services, and peoples’ perceptions of birds. I am studying tropical birds in Guanacaste, a northwestern province in Costa Rica.

The black-headed trogon is one of the species I'll study
The black-headed trogon is one of the species that we find in Guanacaste Photo: Dominic Sherry, Flickr
This is me, looking at birds in Costa Rica.
And this is me. I was doing a survey with one of the locals in Guanacaste, asking him about his perceptions of local birds.
And this is me. I was doing a survey with one of the locals in Guanacaste, asking him about his perceptions of local birds.

MSc research

For my masters I worked on 3 research projects that I call “The messaging project”, “Implicit vs. explicit preferences project” and “The Climate Change project”. They integrate methods and theories of ecology and conservation biology with environmental psychology and science communication.

The messaging project

A raft of sea otters, Sitka sound, Alaska Photo: Nathan, flickr
A raft of sea otters, Sitka sound, Alaska
Photo: Nathan, flickr

Sea otters are a keystone species in their ecosystem because they are top predators in kelp forest ecosystems.  They eat sea urchins and other invertebrates that graze on giant kelp.  Without sea otters, these invertebrates overgraze the kelp and turn the ecosystem into a place full of urchins, clams, etc (also known as urchin barrens).

In coastal B.C. there were many sea otters for hundreds of years, but between 1741-1911, the sea otters were exploited for their fur and were extirpated from their region. In the 1970’s, as an effort to reestablish sea otter populations, conservationists reintroduced sea otters because they were enlisted as an endangered species. However, the comeback of the otters has created a major social problem in the sense that sea otters compete with fishermen for food and resources. The otters have affected fishermen’s livelihoods:

“There used to be manila clams on every beach on the coast,” he says. “That’s how we made our living in the winter besides logging.” Since the otters’ reappearance, Jack says there have been few wild clam openings. Even then, digging has been restricted to a single beach. “I’d trade otters in for the seafood any day”- Jack (Fisherman from B.C.).

Based on this story, my research project aimed to answer:

  • How do people in British Columbia perceive sea otters?
  • How does messaging shape people’s attitudes toward sea otters?

This is work was conducted by me with the help of my supervisory committee (Dr. Jiaying Zhao, and Dr. Kai Chan). This is now finished, and we have submitted a manuscript. Once I get news I will upload the articles here. But for now you can watch the findings in my talk.

Implicit vs. explicit preferences project

People have preferences for some species over others. That said, it is no surprise to imagine that people are more willing to conserve tigers than snails (for example). But why does this happen? What informs people’s preferences for some animals over others, in terms of the species that are ought to be conserved?

Many studies have tried to answer these questions, and some researchers have found that evolutionary factors (like fear, biophilia, anthropomorphism), socio-cultural factors (religion, food, human-use), and species traits (color, size, taxonomic group) are important predictors of such preferences. However, all these studies have studied people’s explicit preferences for species, and comparatively little research has studied implicit preferences. In this research project I aimed to answer:

  • What are people’s implicit and explicit preferences of sea otters and other species at risk in British Columbia?
  • How are these preferences related to the willingness to pay for conservation?

This work was conducted with my colleague Meggie Callahan, and with Dr. Jiaying Zhao, Dr. Kai Chan, and Dr. Terre Satterfield. We are now in the process of writing this, so I will also update later these research findings. But you can also watch some of the findings in my talk.


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