Off to the Pacific

I just returned from a fruitful month-long expedition to Palmyra Atoll, a tiny atoll within the Northern Line Islands located approximately 1,000 miles southwest of Hawaii. While previously occupied by the US Navy during World War II, Palmyra is now protected as a National Wildlife Refuge by the United States. The Navy drastically altered Palmyra’s landscape by extending existing islands and building new ones, constructing causeways to connect these islands, and dredging a channel to allow access to the lagoon. Despite these terrestrial perturbations, the coral reefs surrounding the atoll have remained largely untouched, offering scientists a glimpse into the inner workings of a healthy coral reef ecosystem. Here, sharks abound, providing a stark contrast to the relatively depauperate reefs from which we collected sediment in the Caribbean. Palmyra Atoll is of particular relevance to our study because the shark populations there are both large and well-characterized, giving us the opportunity to validate and refine our use of dermal denticles preserved in sediments as a time-averaged proxy for living shark assemblages on reefs.

Palmyra Atoll is also where I first discovered my passion for coral reef ecology. In 2011, I assisted with field work on Palmyra’s lagoon flats as an undergraduate student at Stanford. While most of my time was spent in the sandy shallows, I went snorkeling on the reef terrace on several occasions. There, plunging into the aquamarine waves, I came face to face with a shark, then two, then three. Never before had I been in the company of a reef so full of predators. This was the first time I had directly observed the ecological splendor of a protected coral reef. It was as if I had been transported back in time to glimpse how reefs may have operated before humans. Three years later, when I began working on the dermal denticle project with Aaron, applying this technique to Palmyra was always in the back of my mind. It’s incredible to now make this idea a reality and share it here with you.

While WordPress was not working on our internet servers on the atoll, preventing me from posting live from the field, I will now be publishing my experiences collecting sediment on Palmyra in regular installments.

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