Mysteries of Migration: Consequences for Conservation Policies


Thomas C. (Tom) Wood, Assistant Professor, and Elizabeth M. (Betsy) Gunn, Associate Professor, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia

Abstract

Mysteries of Migration is a learning community focused on the observation and investigation of the phenomenon of migration in different species. While scientists no longer believe that birds bury themselves in the mud until spring, there are still many unsolved mysteries surrounding migration, such as how monarch butterflies find their way to their ancestral wintering grounds in Mexico despite never having been there before, or why large groups of hammerhead sharks still converge in the Galapagos Islands.

The course is team taught by a conservation biologist and a public policy specialist. The scientific content of the course focuses on the basic biological and physical factors that influence migration -- such as energy metabolism, behavioral adaptations, population genetics, terrain, weather patterns, and magnetism. The policy questions explored include the implications of migration for the development of conservation and resource management policies, both within the United States and with other nations, the role of government and non-governmental actors and institutions in addressing migratory issues, and the advantages and disadvantages of the various political and policy tools we use to deal with migration. The goal of the course is two-fold: to provide students with a solid understanding of basic biological principles by studying their application to one of the most pervasive and interesting phenomena in nature, and to learn about and evaluate the domestic and international policy systems for addressing problems emerging from the movement of plants and animals.

Course activities include seminar discussions of readings and presentations, overnight field trips to observe migration, journal and portfolio development, data collection, the development and implementation of an individual research project, and the completion of a group case study of a public policy issue involving migration. Mysteries of Migration incorporates several innovative pedagogies into its framework, including team teaching, experiential learning (field trips), peer evaluation, group work, and portfolio assessment strategies.


Learning Goals

This learning community will investigate the exciting and, in some cases, mysterious phenomenon of migration-from butterflies to polar bears. In the past, scientists thought birds flew to the moon or buried themselves in the mud until spring. Although we no longer believe these theories, mystery still surrounds some aspects of migration. Every year, monarch butterflies arrive at their ancestral wintering grounds in Mexico even though none have ever been there before. And hammerhead sharks converge, for example, in the Galapagos in large groups for unknown reasons.

Our focus will be on the basic biological and physical factors that influence migration-such as energy metabolism, behavioral adaptations, population genetics, terrain, weather patterns, and magnetism-and the implications of migration for the development of conservation and resource management policies both within the United States and with other nations. Our primary goal is two-fold: (1) to provide students with a solid understanding of basic biological principles by studying their application to one of the most pervasive and interesting phenomena in nature, and (2) to learn about and evaluate the domestic and international policy systems and tools for addressing problems and issues raised by the movement of plants and animals. A secondary goal is to enhance the students awareness of the historical and cultural importance of migration through introducing a variety of readings, including fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Examples of questions to be investigated include: Why do organisms migrate? How do they know "where to go"? What factors affect the timing of migration? What problems does migration pose for resource management and conservation efforts, domestically and internationally? Are the institutions and mechanisms we currently depend on to protect migrating species effective?

Upon completion of the course, each member of the learning community should be able to:

  1. Describe the biological parameters associated with migration, including behavioral and physiological components, and discuss their significance when developing conservation policy.
  2. Provide several examples of important migratory issues and assess the effectiveness of our public policy system in addressing scientific uncertainties and value conflicts associated with each issue.
  3. Discuss the roles of the major governmental and non-governmental actors and institutions responsible for handling migratory issues in local, state, national and international arenas.
  4. List the major policy tools available for dealing with migration issues, evaluate their strengths and weaknesses and provide examples of their use.
  5. Demonstrate the capacity to synthesize and integrate key facts and ideas from the learning community through the quality of journal entries, analytical and reflective work on case studies, quizzes/exams, completion of the assessment portfolio, and active participation in field activities.


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