• Vieques Picture
  • Vieques Picture

Biology

About Vieques

Vieques is an island in the Caribbean, located about 7 miles east of Puerto Rico and about 1,000 miles southwest of Orlando, Florida. It is a part of the Virgin Islands which make up the terrestrial east barrier of the Caribbean. As a part of Puerto Rico, it is also a U.S. possession. Vieques has a tropical climate, and a unique culture. Click on any of the topics listed below to learn more about this island and opportunities.

Caribbean Island Biological Experience

Every other summer, usually in June to mid-July, Dr. Albrecht conducts a class that takes place on a small island off the east coast of Puerto Rico. This opportunity is open to everyone: undergraduate and graduate regardless of major. This class has many benefits. Here are just a few:

  • Meet other students and faculty from UNK
  • Experience and learn about tropical biology and island biogeography
  • Work on or help others with research projects
  • See undisturbed beaches, corals, and mangroves
  • Many swimming and snorkeling opportunities
  • Experience the rare and beautiful bioluminescent bay experience
  • Work on a long-term monitoring program with US Fish and Wildlife

The groups vary in size from 5 to 20. Dr. Albrecht works to keep the costs as low as possible and wants people to feel a sense of accomplishment and enjoy the beauty of this place.

Please click on any of the other pages to see more about specific topics. Feel free to e-mail Dr. Albrecht at any time: albrechtm@unk.edu

Germophology of Vieques

  • Size: 19 miles by 3 miles
  • Elevation: 0-290 miles above sea level
  • Rock Types:
    • Cretaceous dorite and lava
    • Tertiary marine sedimentary
    • Quaternary beach, alluvium, swamp

History of Vieques

Until about 250 BC Archaic natives lived on the Antilles, including Vieques with no ceramics or agriculture. Saladoid people moved up from Venezuela 250 BC – 400AD. They made use of pigmented ceramics, jade, and other semi-precious stones, and they had dogs as companions.

After 400 AD, Vieques housed the Pre-Tanio and Ostionoids people. They used coarser clay with no pigments. In 1200 AD Tanios came about. They were more organized, having larger groups and chiefs.

Vieques was first encountered by Europeans. Columbus found Puerto Rico in 1493. Spanish power in the Caribbean largely ignored after killing most of the inhabitants off. For several centuries Vieques was virtually lawless. The English and the Danes attempted to colonize.

In 1823, Le Guillou went to Vieques, and in 1832, he got 10 years to ‘civilize it,’ using plantations with French working under the Spanish crown. “The Golden Cup” of Puerto Rico which lasted from 1854-1880 saw opera houses, cinemas, etc. The civilization continued until 1920's.

Puerto Rico became US possession in 1917 as a result of the Spanish-American War, instead of Cuba, because it was more strategic. During WWII, the US military bought 72% of Vieques from landowners and bankruptcy courts. They then built a British fleet base and submarines after Pearl Harbor. This did not go over well with locals.

Visuals: Map

Click here to see a map of Vieques.

Endangered Species

Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands are home to 29 endangered animals and 49 endangered plants presently. I say presently because more species may be endangered by continued human activity and more species may be found to be endangered as more biologists investigate the area.

In Vieques a number of endangered animals are frequently seen on the UNK trips. These include Green sea turtles, brown pelican, and leatherback sea turtle. While snorkeling students and I have seen barracuda, dolphin, squid (which look very unusual and colorful in their native surroundings), turtles, spotted rays, eagle rays, as well as the ‘normal’ contingency of reef fishes and invertebrates such as sea stars, sea cucumbers, and shrimps.

UNK students have participated in explorations for the Virgin Island tree boa and sea turtle nests. Other researchers on Vieques have discovered an endangered tree that was thought to occur only on Puerto Rico. More of these trees are being recorded and discovered with further work.

The West Indian manatee is known to inhabit the waters of Vieques. However these animals are rare, they prefer shallow areas with sea grass meadows and these areas are also attractive to people for recreational use and this is a problem of course. Manatee sightings are rare and so far we have not seen one on our trips to Vieques.

Other researchers have done herpetological surveys of Vieques, the imported green iguana and mongoose are impacting the native herps. I am sure the Vieques FWS would be happy to have more people survey their refuge for herp-tile populations.

Tourism

Tourism is a large part of the economy of Puerto Rico in general, and Vieques specifically. Prior to the 1920’s the economy of Vieques was based on sugar cane. This began in the mid 1700’s. Today there is no commercial agriculture on Vieques. Plantation owners sold the eastern half and a slice of western Vieques to the US military as nature of the sugar industry changed in the 20th century.

There are many reasons for eco-tourists to visit Vieques today. First the island has no chain restaurants or stores. This gives the location a small, less-developed experience than many tourist destinations. Spanish is the native language of Vieques. Next, the beaches have few people and few amenities. This means wildlife is everywhere, not just in a glass aquarium. All this adds up to an experience that feels like you have traveled to another country, though you have not, most cell phones work, there is a Post Office, and dollars are the currency. Here are a few other things to see on Vieques:

  • The last fort built by the Spanish in this hemisphere: Fort Mirasol
  • The Caribbean on the south side and the Atlantic on the north (just 3 miles apart) give different beaches, fishes, and water temperature
  • Good examples of geological uplift on the island, from the off-shore islands (I usually swim out to one - we see lots of fish and other marine life) to Mt. Pirata (yes, pirates really did use Vieques as a haven) at just about 1,000 ft
  • A dramatic east-west precipitation gradient that shows three biomes in 20 miles
  • Endangered species such as brown pelican, manatee, and leatherback turtles frequent the island
  • Four species of sea turtles are found on Vieques, often we help the Fish and Wildlife Service look for nests, move eggs if necessary, release young, or tag adult turtles
  • Stunning flowers such as the Flamboyan tree and papaya, pineapples, and star fruit grown naturally on the island
  • Horses of the smooth-gaited breed “Paso Fino” inhabit the island. Many are free most of the time, though they are owned by folks. Young men use them for transportation as well around the island.
  • The town of Esperanza has a wonderful shallow harbor with expansive seagrass beds, a pier with lots of fish, and open-air small restaurants
  • The bioluminescent experience as discussed on the other page
  • Kayak tours are available as are charter fishing and cycling tours
  • Archeological evidence of the Native Americans that inhabited the islands before the arrival of the Spanish on Puerto Rico

Research Conducted

There are many field research projects that have been done on Vieques. These projects include research projects I am doing, those graduate students have done, and those done by undergraduate students in biology. Here is a brief description of a selection of research projects done by UNK students and myself in the last few years. Please note that a number of other projects have been done or are under way.

  • Undergraduate Students
    • Heather Tracy
      Insect abundance and diversity in a Puerto Rican mangrove forest - Winner, best Biology 420 Presentation, Fall 2006
    • Matthew Lehechka
      Freshwater fish of Vieques, a test of the MacArthur-Wilson Theory of biogeography - Winner best 420 Presentation, Summer 2008
  • Graduate Students:
    • Isha Alexander
      The bats of Vieques - conservation and habitat preservation work is continuing with the Fish and Wildlife Service. Bats eat insects of course but some species also are night pollinators. Ms. Alexander was the first person to capture 2 of these species on Vieques. These findings explain how certain trees and plants are pollinated on Vieques. Ms. Alexander is also working on lizard trapping, tagging, and habitat studies on Vieques outside of the UNK Distance Master’s program, 2007 and ongoing.
    • Russell Forsee
      Population estimates and seasonal movement of the blue land crab (Cardisoma guanhumi) on Vieques. This work is part of a grant from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, 2009. Permanent tagging of crabs will help discover the numbers and spatial migration patterns of this species that is both important to the mangrove ecosystem and an economically important food resource for Caribbean people. Sharon Hyak: Distribution and habitat preferences of juvenile blue land crab (Cardisoma guanhumi). This work supported in part by a grant from US Fish and Wildlife Service, 2009. Very little is known about where and how the juvenile stages of this species survive. Our work can fill this void.
    • Amanda Ford
      Searching for the aquatic larvae of the blue land crab (Cardisoma guanhumi) in prospective management bays on Vieques, Puerto Rico. This work supported by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, 2009. One issue for the management of this species is where are the young recruiting? Females release eggs into the ocean while still standing on land. The location of the larvae has not been reported for this species, though there is research on other decapods.
  • Faculty Research:
    • Mangrove long-term growth plots
      These plots have been in place since 2006. Every year the growth of black and red mangrove trees is measured. Beginning in 2009 new water connectivity structures were built allowing more water flow between two sides of a road that has cut ocean mangrove from lagoon mangrove populations.
    • Genetic analysis of mangrove
      With the help of UNK Distance Master’s Graduate students such as Bernice Speer, Thomas Champeau, and Nathan Barrett I have been able to collect red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle) leaves from a wide geographic area. With the help of Dr. Mark Mort (University of Kansas) and Dr. John Foster the genetic comparisons of mangrove across the Caribbean is underway, 2009.
    • Chemical composition of decomposing mangrove leaves
      How nutrients get from mangrove forests back into mangrove lagoons and the ocean is an important part of this ecosystem. Dr. Ray Ward, a graduate and adjunct instructor at UNK is founder and president of a soil and leaf analysis laboratory. With his help the chemical pattern of leaf decomposition is being measured in an ongoing experiment, 2009.
    • Mangrove Drowning Experiment
      One issue with sea level rise is that of coastline erosion. Red mangrove (R. mangle) is one of the few species that builds land through trapping sediment and straight biomass accumulation. I just completed a small experiment testing the drowning tolerance of red mangrove propagules. This work may have restoration and conservation implication for this species, 2009.

Giant Blue Land Crab Study - 2009

Dr. Marc Albrecht with UNK Distance Master’s students Ms. Amanda Ford and Senior Master Sergeant Russell Forsee (Air Force), with funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service undertook a study of the giant blue land crab (Cardiosoma guanhumi) on Vieques (in 2009). Other UNK Master’s students that have worked on this project were Courtney Hemmert, Kathryn Hoffman, and Sharon Hyak. Also contributing greatly to this effort were L. Quiñones, los dos Pedros, and a number of members of the non-profit turtle conservation group Tictove: S. Burgos, A. Cruz, J. Fernandez, L. Martinez, F. Peterson, J. Ramos, M. Rodriguez.

This project had two main parts. The first was to find and if possible quantify the larval land crab. The eggs of this species are released into brackish or seawater by females. The larvae quickly hatch and begin an approximately 30 day cycle of maturation and growth during which they transform from zooplankton to tiny crabs and come crawling back out of the water to land. This part of the project had good success, larvae were found at a number of locations. The data are still being analyzed.

The second part of the project was to permanently mark crabs in a way their population can be calculated and followed into the future. These crabs are taken for food by people on Vieques, either for their own consumption or sale to restaurants on Puerto Rico (where populations of these crabs have been depleted due to hunting). This part of the project involved working at night in crab areas, typically near mud flats behind bays on Vieques. This was hard work for the crew, often working after a full day at a regular job, then grabbing dinner, and then meeting Mr. Forsee and heading back out until 11:00 pm at night! But the rewards were great. In just over a week nearly 400 crabs were captured, weighted, measured, tagged and released.

The giant blue land crab is a fascinating animal. They can live for over 10 years, up to how old is not known. They can get very large. Our work found crabs over 800 grams. These animals dig branching burrows that can penetrate 3 m or more into the ground. It is not clear if individuals occupy particular burrows for one year or many. During mating season they often leave the burrow areas, moving kilometers inland scaling trees and fences in their way. Reportedly juveniles live near or inside burrows of adults that presumably are not related to the young in any way. The burrowing and eating activities of these animals add to the nutrient cycling of the mangrove and costal ecosystem. They probably represent a large proportion of the terrestrial animal biomass of the ecosystem in which they occur.

Other projects are ongoing as part of this work. Ms. Hyak examined burrow density, distance from water, and burrow size distribution. Mr. Forsee is also monitoring a group of captive crabs to determine their tolerance to the tags used, and trying to encourage molting in captivity.

Possible Future Research Options

  • Freshwater resources
    • Ephemeral
    • Perennial
    • Animals
  • Continued monitoring of mangroves
    • Expanding to other areas on island
  • Fish species / abundance
    • Nutrient and energy cycling in mangroves
  • Identification of inverts on island and nearby islands

Bioluminescent Bay Tour

Vieques has one of the best bioluminescent bays in the world. And we always visit it. The tour company I use has been doing trips for many years and do the tours in a responsible and ecologically minimally invasive way. Bioluminescence is a common phenomena in the oceans. Almost any ship on a dark night in the middle of the ocean will stir up microorganisms in its wake that make faint flashes of light. Many microorganisms produce light when disturbed in the ocean.

A bioluminescent bay has extremely high concentrations of the correct types of organisms. The high density makes for, under the right conditions, a wonderful firework display of heatless blue-white light when ever your hand moves in the water. Or a fish moves, or along the bow wave of a boat. The organism responsible for this light in Vieques is Pydrodinium bahamense. This organism is sensitive to environmental conditions and most bioluminescent bays in the world have fallen prey to light pollution and chemical pollution that drop their numbers very low.

However, as long as this wonderful natural spectacle is part of the Vieques experience we will continue to go whenever possible. This link gives further information about the company we work with.

I, Dr. Albrecht, have a manuscript in preparation using data collected by the previous owner and the current lead tour guide of this company to analyze the population patterns of the “whirling flame of the Bahamas”.

Testimonial

Russell A. Forsee, Graduate Student at UNK
When I first started the distant learning Masters Biology program at University of Nebraska at Kearney, I envisioned sitting behind a computer for a couple of hours a week taking tests, watching lectures, and contributing to discussion boards. I knew I would be giving up the important face-to-face advisor interaction and the hands on work at the Universities labs, but my full time work schedule afforded me no other option. My plan was to make the best of it by setting up my own lab in my garage and work closely with my advisor via email. The opportunity came up last year to go to Vieques Island and help assist Dr. Albrecht on a mangrove project. I was able to earn credits while actually meeting my advisor. Although the cost was reasonable, it was going to exceed my budget for education for the year. I did have some reservations. However, I convinced myself it would be an investment in my education and I bought my tickets.

My investment paid off on the first trip, and is currently the only investment I have with positive growth. The first trip we worked hard in the mangroves to gather critical data, we help in beach restoration, and rescued sea turtles eggs. We enjoyed a life changing evening in a bioluminescence bay floating in warm waters looking at the Southern Cross while covered in millions of glowing dinoflagellates. The best part of the trip…I found my research project. I knew then I had made the right choice. I am currently working with a species of giant land crab, Cardisoma guanhumi, which inhabits the island. I spent the next year reading everything I could find and started preliminary studies in my garage. When I returned this past summer, I was able to see a return on my investment with a contract from the Fish and Wildlife Service.

I am still very happy to be sitting in front of a computer working on lectures, discussion boards, and in my “low tech” garage lab. But thanks to my investment, I also have the face-to-face interaction with my advisor and hands on field research I never thought was possible. This is the best program out there. I have moved three times since I started this program and not missed a day. This would be impossible in a traditional program. I am very excited to be at Kearney and encourage everyone to make the investment by getting involved with a project like this...you can’t imagine what you will see and learn.

Visuals: Photo Gallery