News from the Atoll | May 2024

climbing strawberry hermit crabs

Ia Ora Na

Welcome back to Tetiaroa. It is hard to convey the community spirit that is fostered on the island amongst the 200+ people that live here including the staff of The Brando Resort, the staff and researchers of Tetiaroa Society, the staff and contractors that run the support operations. At its core, everyone   here knows they are working for the future of this island and for what it means to the local community and the world at large. In this issue, as always, we are happy to share some stories and accomplishments with you and invite you to join our community as well.

Nature Notes | Strawberry Hermit Crabs

Last month I was walking down the beach with a group of students and this is what we saw – Strawberry Hermit Crabs up in the branches of the Beach Heliotrope (Heliotropium foertherianium). I have seen this before, but this was a particularly large group scattered about the branches. The students of course were fascinated. Questions like this generally lead to more questions, and field investigations. The questions came fast and furious. What are they doing? Why are they up there? Why are they lined up on the branch? What is that one doing way at the top?

Questions like this generally lead to more questions, and field investigations often lead researchers along branching paths that require observations on multiple organisms at the same time. This is how we come to understand ecosystems and figure out ways to protect them.

Research | Crab Roles and Sapflow Sensors

Three new researchers have come to work on projects related to our Tetiaroa Atoll Restoration Program. Michael Burnett and Charlie Braman both from Professor Hillary Young’s lab at the University of California Santa Barbara, have begun new PhD projects.
Both projects are aimed at trying to understand the change in ecosystem dynamics as we remove invasive species from the island.


Groundwater Consumption Rates of Tropical Atoll Vegetation

Michael’s project is comparing the uptake of fresh water by coconut trees and other native trees. Since Tetiaroa was a coconut plantation from the mid 1800’s until the 1960’s most native trees were removed, and coconut trees were planted. Since the plantation business ended coconut trees have proliferated to a level that is unnatural, essentially becoming invasive. There are a lot of reasons to reduce the coconut tree population but one of them may be that they use a lot of water, thus taking a heavy toll on the water supply used by other native plants. Michael has put sapflow sensors on different species of trees to monitor their uptake of water. These sensors will operate for a full year and collect data that will give us answers to this important question.

Atoll ecological response to simulated crab loss

With the removal of rats and the presumed growth of crab populations, they will once again play a major role as ecosystem managers. Charlie’s project seeks to provide data on how crabs contribute to nutrient flow by comparing sites where crabs do not exist with undisturbed sites. Twelve paired experimental sites will be set up with one fenced off so that crabs cannot access it, and one left open. All will be maintained and monitored for soil pH, soil conductivity, carbon and nitrogen flux, stable isotopes, vegetation and leaf cover, and canopy cover. The results of this project will combine with other crab research to give us an unusually detailed description of the roles that crabs play in the islands terrestrial and marine ecosystems.

Education Updates:

environmental education, cultural immersion, & community engagement

The Tetiaroa Society Education Program has been busy with both local school groups and international field courses. The UC Berkeley Island Sustainability field course was on the island for 16 days in January, and then two US high schools, Chadwick School and Lakeside School, followed in March and April. Week-long field courses for local schools have also been going on with two grade schools visiting from Moorea and more lined up through the rest of the school year.

These educational adventures are transformative experiences for students and teachers alike. The students were introduced to the unique ecosystem and sustainable practices of Tetiaroa. In addition to environmental initiatives, students also engaged in cultural experiences, such as attending a “marae” ceremony and exploring local traditions. These interactions provided valuable insights into the rich cultural heritage of Tetiaroa.

TS Research in the News

Rethinking Atoll Futures: local resilience to global challenges

Trends in Ecology & Evolution

In March, the work that Tetiaroa Society is doing to restore the island was featured in an article and on the cover of the scientific journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution. This journal is one of the top three most respected scientific journals in the world and it is quite a remarkable milestone for Tetiaroa Research and Conservation Programs to be included in this publication. The lead author, Sebastian Steibl (University of Auckland) has been an active researcher for our Tetiaroa Atoll Restoration Program. He was joined by an exemplary group of co-authors including Tetiaroa Society staff Neil Davies (Science Director), Hinano Teavai-Murphy (Cultural Director), Frank Murphy (Director of Programs), and long-term TS researchers and collaborators Hillary Young (University of California Santa Barbara), James Russell (University of Auckland), Alex Wegman (The Nature Conservancy), and Nick Holmes (The Nature Conservancy).

The article makes the case that contrary to the narrative that atoll islands are vulnerable to sea-level rise, they can be resilient to this and other effects of climate change if they are in a natural state. The take-away is that we need to restore atolls in order to preserve their natural and cultural heritage. This is of course exactly what we are doing on Tetiaroa.

Your generous donations can help us continue this important work.

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Tetiaroa Society is a US registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization (Tax ID #45-1080688). We host scientific research, develop and implement conservation and education programs, and curate the island's knowledge base. We partner with The Brando to establish Tetiaroa as a model for sustainability, where businesses, non-profits, scientists, educators and the local community work together for common goals. Our program objectives are summarized in our Conservation and Sustainable Use Plan, which is available on our website.

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