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Montana Western professors teach in Grenada

April 13, 2010

Montana Western biology professor Jack Kirkley and his wife, Brenda, and environmental sciences professor Sheila Roberts and her husband, environmental sciences department manager Tom Satterly, were invited to Grenada by former University of Montana Western biology professor Andrea Easter-Pilcher to teach several science classes as visiting professors.

Roberts taught at St. George’s University (SGU) in January and February while Kirkley taught there in March and April. Roberts gave guest lectures on the geology of Grenada and the Caribbean in two classes within the school of arts and sciences and co-led two weekend field trips. She also led a landslide seminar to help in the repair and reclamation of roads and land destroyed by landslides after hurricanes in 2004 and 2005.

Recent hurricanes inflicted widespread damage to Grenada, destroying much of the island nation’s economically vital spice tree crops and other natural vegetation.

“The volcanic topography of Grenada is very steep, and much of the ground is weathered volcanic ash and other debris, so reestablishing vegetation cover is essential to keep hillsides in place,” Roberts said.

For Roberts, professor of geology, the experience of being on a volcanic island arc for the first time was a highlight of her trip.

For Roberts, professor of geology, the experience of being on a volcanic island arc for the first time was a highlight of her trip.

“The Lesser Antilles archipelago is a composite of at least five volcanoes created by the subduction of the Atlantic Ocean Plate under the Caribbean Plate,” Roberts explained. “It’s a classic geologic environment. Volcanic island arcs were one of the first major geologic enigmas to be explained by plate tectonics.”

Roberts taught at St. George’s shortly after the Haiti earthquake and said it was a unique opportunity to help Grenadians better understand the different geology of the region.

“While the Caribbean plate is slipping relatively continuously over the Atlantic plate near Grenada, Haiti is on a fault like the San Andreas, generating big earthquakes as North America and the Caribbean jerk violently past each other,” Roberts explained. “It seemed important to explain to students why Grenada, also an island in the Caribbean, is not likely to have that kind of natural disaster.”

Kirkley, an ornithologist, gave guest lectures augmenting three different classes. He also provided an avian research methods workshop for Grenada natural resource professionals and SGU faculty members, which included a field demonstration of bird banding techniques. Prior to his teaching assignment in Grenada, Kirkley, his wife and two young sons also traveled to the nearby islands of Trinidad and Tobago, which are part of what he calls a “bird migration highway” stretching from the Greater Antilles islands in the north to the Lesser Antilles chain ending with Grenada, Trinidad and Tobago just off the South American coast.

Kirkley said some of the more than 100 species of tropical birds he saw there, such as parrots and macaws, were only a few examples of the area’s incredibly rich bird diversity.

“The island country of Trinidad, which is only about the size of Beaverhead County, hosts about 422 species of birds,” Kirkley explained.

“The island country of Trinidad, which is only about the size of Beaverhead County, hosts about 422 species of birds,” Kirkley explained. “For such a small island, that’s a very impressive variety of birds comparable to the number of bird species found in the entire state of Montana.”

Easter-PilchersOne of Kirkley’s classes focused on restoration work at a mangrove mud flat also damaged by the recent hurricanes. He delivered a presentation on bird identification and helped students in the field learn how to identify the kinds of birds they were seeing in the mud flat. His contributions helped the students in a study they are conducting to document what species of birds currently use the mud flat and how bird use of the area may change as the mangroves recover and return. Kirkley also gave a lecture on the diversity of birds as part of Easter-Pilcher’s Grenada Natural History class. He participated in a number of the class’ field trips, including a trip to a sanctuary where the endemic, endangered Grenada Dove is found. Kirkley also joined the class on a nighttime visit to a beach to observe the nesting behavior of leatherback sea turtles.

A small, volcanic, Caribbean island about 100 miles off the Venezuelan coast, Grenada has been home to St. George’s University for over 30 years. Known for their medical and veterinary schools, SGU added a school of arts and sciences in 1996 for bachelor-degree seeking students. The program allows Grenadians to achieve an undergraduate degree without having to leave the island. Easter-Pilcher, who hosted the visiting professors from Montana Western, moved to Grenada last year with her family and is now a professor of biology and chair of the St. George’s University Life Sciences Department within the School of Arts and Sciences. With Saint George’s University’s strong history of welcoming visiting professors, Easter-Pilcher, Roberts and Kirkley hope professors from Montana Western will be able to continue to be involved in these international experiences. Roberts said student exchanges may also be possible in the future.