Thursday, April 10, 2014

Professor Studies Manatees Around World

By Eloise Ravell

Daniel Gonzalez-Socoloske, assistant professor of biology at Andrews University, is currently in his first year of teaching at Andrews. He specializes in tropical mammal ecology and conservation and has been studying manatees for the past ten years.

Gonzalez-Socoloske graduated from Andrews in 2003 with a Bachelor of Science in biology with a zoology emphasis. He went on to receive his master’s degree in biology from Loma Linda University and later his PhD in ecology from Duke University.

His interest is how species adapt to their environment and the effect of both natural and human-induced habitat changes on their behavior. Because he works with threatened species, one of the primary outcomes of his research is to provide sound conservation strategies that are species- and location-specific based on the behavioral data he collects.

“I was one of those rare freshmen that went in thinking, ‘I want to do biology,’” he says. “I always wanted to pursue it because it was something that I genuinely loved.”

Gonzalez-Socoloske first became introduced to manatee research when he began working on his master’s degree at Loma Linda.

“I was always interested in wildlife and I was always interested in mammals,” he says. “It was just a matter of honing in on a particular animal.”

Manatees posed a beneficial area of study because of the lack of research that was currently focused on them outside of the United States. For his master's thesis, Gonzalez-Socoloske focused on the distribution and threats to manatees in Honduras. Now, his expertise lies within manatee research and his work has contributed to the advancement of study in this area. 

“I went in with a lot of preconceived ideas as to what manatees were and their behavior,” he says. “Through the years I’ve gained an awesome respect for these creatures and realized they are much more complex than I initially gave them credit for. They’re much more intelligent than people typically think.”

Not only did he have the opportunity to work with manatees in the U.S., Gonzalez-Socoloske traveled to more than five countries in Central and North America to further study the creatures. This summer he will be working on an island off of Cuba, Isla de la Juventud, which differs from the tannin-stained water of river systems with which he is used to working.

“Every location has unique challenges and you bond with the people there,” he says. “Each spot has its own charm.”

For his PhD work in feeding ecology, he focused on various aspects of manatee feeding ecology in the freshwater wetlands of Mexico. On-site, he and his team were able to capture the manatees, radio-tag them and track them to study their movements and behavior. The water levels at the site varied by almost 20 feet between the dry season and the wet season affecting the food availability of the herbivorous mammals. Although they are considered generalists with a wide variety of food they can eat, manatees are picky about what they consume.

With colleagues not only in Mexico, Honduras and Cuba, but Japan, Costa Rica and Panama as well, he seeks to continue his research and hopes to incorporate these studies into the classes he teaches at Andrews. One day, he hopes to bring graduate and undergraduate students on the trips as part of their coursework.

“Having a research program for students tremendously enriches their experience,” he says. “It opens their world to something larger than themselves, larger than their own unique goals.”

As far as his teaching career, Gonzalez-Socoloske says that his research creates a more concrete foundation to the concepts he teaches because of his real-world experience and application. 

“Students can see that we are teachers, but we are biologists as well,” he says. “They can see that we are part of a larger community of science and they can see what we are actually striving to do.”

One of the highlights from his research occurred in Tabasco, Mexico when he was concluding his data research for his PhD. It was the dry season when he and his team encountered an adult female separated from the other manatees, a highly unusual incident, as they are usually shy and hard to see.

After wading in the water for some time, the seven and a half foot manatee, later named Francisca, approached the team sociably and wanted to interact with them. The unique behavior of this manatee allowed the team to study her closely. Two years later, when Gonzalez-Socoloske returned to the site, Francisca was spotted in the very same area. 

“When you connect the local community to an individual creature like Francisca,” he says, “it was so amazing to see the transformation of how the people began looking out for her and there was an acceptance and an accountability that was built into having this experience with this animal.”

Gonzalez-Socoloske has not only grown attached to manatees, but continues to enjoy what he does for a living.

“Research was important to me early on,” he says. “To fall in love with science. I was already in love with nature. I enjoyed tremendously working with animals and being outside. Engaging in the research really helped me to enjoy the element of discovery and pushing the frontiers of our knowledge.”

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