Engaging Learners From Afar with Shedd Aquarium’s Iguana Field Research

The following is a blog post by Jackie Formoso, Manager of Learning Programs at Shedd Aquarium, about her experience co-leading Shedd’s research on Bahamian rock iguanas in the Exuma Islands.

An Exuma Island rock iguana, Cyclura cychlura figginsi. ©Shedd Aquarium/Chuck Knapp

As part of Shedd Aquarium’s ongoing commitment to preserving wildlife for future generations, we have a team of scientists who are working hard to study endangered species, conserve ecosystems and educate others about ways they can help. We’ve designed field experiences over time that physically bring curious and interested citizens into the hard (and fun!) work that we constantly strive to lead. Shedd’s research on Bahamian rock iguanas is one of our longest standing projects, which began in the early 1990’s by Dr. Chuck Knapp, Vice President of Conservation and Research at Shedd Aquarium. As a manager of learning programs at Shedd, I had the opportunity to join Dr. Knapp to co-lead a team of 12 citizen scientists on his research trip to the Exuma Islands in the Bahamas. The trip provided our Learning Programs team the chance to test innovative ways to connect learners in different places to Shedd’s science and research. It also gave me an unforgettable, closer look at the importance of conservation research and the work that goes into it.

Making Knowledge Accessible

Our Learning Programs team at Shedd Aquarium used this opportunity to expand our educational accessibility, giving learners a virtual experience that would allow them to follow along with research as it happens. This is a similar idea to a program that I manage at the aquarium in Chicago – Live from Behind the Scenes – a virtual field trip experience for school groups to get a unique connection to Shedd animals and experts without leaving their classroom. This pilot, which we began calling “live from the field”, was a win-win since Shedd’s conservation research team had a similar goal of sharing their work in real time.

Our goals for going “live from the field” are twofold. First, we hope to raise awareness of Shedd’s research initiatives and find ways to connect others around the world with work that few have experienced. And second, we hope to increase overall science literacy in a way that learners can understand how science is done and why everyone, near and far, should get involved in conservation projects.

While co-leading this trip, I was able to test some tools for making these connections, including regular updates on Twitter (using #SheddResearch), responding to a public survey poll in the field, live video tests with colleagues and taking short videos to share of the work being done. The Shedd Aquarium Learning Programs team hopes to amplify this pilot and plan next steps for sharing Shedd’s research more broadly.

Gaining Knowledge Myself

When Chuck and I began our journey aboard Shedd’s 85-foot research vessel, the R/V Coral Reef II, I immediately saw the dedicated planning and excitement that Chuck had as a researcher. While our day-to-day work may look quite different, this was something we shared. In time, we were joined by citizen scientists for the week-long research trip, which included several team members from universities where studies combined well with Chuck’s work, allowing for a larger pool of data for all to access.

Our team of scientists for the research expedition.
Our team of citizen scientists for the research expedition.
©Shedd Aquarium/Chuck Knapp

Before 8 a.m. the first morning, all of us were out on the boat deck eagerly anticipating our team efforts to collect data on the Exuma Island rock iguanas, Cyclura cychlura figginsi. For each iguana that we processed, we gathered physical measurements, such as weight and body length, and some blood samples for genetics. To avoid repeat data collection during that specific trip, we left small white paint marks that go away over time on the side of their bodies. Over our week in the field together, we processed 278 iguanas.

Throughout this experience, I learned even more about the hard work, time and dedication that research such as this takes. Involving citizen scientists is an incredible way to help raise awareness, interest and collect more data over a shorter period of time. While co-leading this research trip, I learned not only a great deal about the importance of the research being done, but also some of the aspects important to research, like communication, teamwork and getting back up to try again when challenges arise. I look forward to using this experience and knowledge gained to help people see that science is all around them.

You can follow along with us from afar on Twitter with @SheddLearning, @SheddResearch and #SheddResearch.

Dr. Chuck Knapp measures the length of one of the Exuma rock iguanas.
Dr. Chuck Knapp measures the length of an Exuma Island rock iguana.
©Shedd Aquarium/Jackie Formoso

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
The John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago sparks compassion, curiosity and conservation for the aquatic animal world. Home to 32,000 aquatic animals representing 1,500 species of fishes, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates, birds and mammals from waters around the globe, Shedd is a recognized leader in animal care, conservation education and research. An accredited member of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) and the first U.S. aquarium to be awarded the Humane Conservation™ certification mark for the care and welfare of its animals by American Humane, the organization is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institute, and is supported by the people of Chicago, the State of Illinois and the Chicago Park District. www.sheddaquarium.org