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Galápagos Waters Illustrate Drama of Climate Change

December 22, 2016
Algae cage

Brown biology graduate student Robbie Lamb cages off an area of algae as part of an experiment to investigate patterns of grazing by herbivorous fish and urchins. Image: Jon Witman

Brown marine biologist Jon Witman, doctoral student Robert Lamb, and others at Brown have spent much of 2016 in the Galápagos Islands, continuing years of chronicling the complex and dramatic ecological changes wrought by the increasingly volatile El Niño – La Niña cycle.  Lamb, for instance, discovered the emergence of a skin-wasting disease in the reef fishes that he studies. 

“We were surprised to find this novel wildlife disease running rampant in at least 20 different species,” Lamb said. “Such outbreaks of disease are one of the least understood but potentially devastating manifestations of climate change.”

The 2015-16 El Niño was "exceptionally strong,” Witman said. “Climatologists predict that the frequency of strong El Niños will increase with climate change.”

This year, with funding from the National Science Foundation, Witman has made several expeditions with graduate and undergraduate students to witness the effects of the latest El Niño. He journeyed to the Galápagos in January, March and again last summer, and he’s there again now through February on sabbatical. He celebrated Thanksgiving with Lamb and colleagues at the Charles Darwin Research Station with a holiday meal of ahi tuna, cornbread, pumpkin soup and baked sweet potato.

“During this past year of fieldwork in Galápagos, there were so many surprises that we could hardly keep up with all the effects of the strong El Niño,” Witman said.

Read more of David Orenstein's story on research in the Galápagos waters.