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Behind the Science: Lotus Vermeer

A born adventurer, when she isn’t behind a computer or trekking the island, Dr. Vermeer scuba dives, mountain bikes, hikes the Los Padres National Forest with her infant son and trains horses. Here Dr. Vermeer stops to chat with us about her lifelong love affair with islands.
"There was a very real possibility that the Santa Cruz Island fox was going extinct."

Lotus Vermeer, Santa Cruz Island project director

Nature.org:

Is it true you’ve always worked on islands?

Lotus Vermeer:

Yes, the adventures started when I was six years old. My father was a seabird ecologist with the Canadian Wildlife Service, and he took me with him in summers to islands off the northwest tip of Vancouver Island, within an area now referred to as the Great Bear Rainforest. A helicopter would drop us off in June and pick us up in August. We lived in an 8’ x 10’ tool shed with no electricity and no running water.

Nature.org:

What other islands have you worked on?

Lotus Vermeer:

I spent a decade in the eastern Caribbean running a marine turtle conservation, research and education program. I got my PhD studying the growth and distribution of seagrasses in the area. They play an important conservation role in coastal habitats by supplying food for a variety of animals, filtering water contaminants, stabilizing erosion and providing habitat for fish and other marine life. I also did some side work on small islands in the Philippines.

Nature.org:

What fascinates you about working on islands?

Lotus Vermeer:

The stakes are much higher on islands. The isolation and lack of connection that islands have lead to a higher rate of endemism—unique species found nowhere else—so if a disease or unexpected event occurs, it can wipe out an entire species. While the risks can be greater, the rewards are greater too.

Nature.org:

You started working on Santa Cruz Island seven years ago. What kinds of rewards have you seen?

Lotus Vermeer:

There was a very real possibility that the Santa Cruz Island fox was going extinct. We ramped up our efforts to save them, and today we have more than 1,200 foxes on the island. That’s more than a twelvefold increase in the population. It’s fabulous to see that scale of recovery for a species in such a short period of time.
The same goes for the re-establishment of bald eagles. We now have four nesting pairs on Santa Cruz Island (see them live on the webcam!) and two on neighboring Santa Rosa Island. Since we removed the feral pigs and sheep from the island, I’m seeing wildflowers I’ve never seen before; the oak trees are coming back; and dense buckwheat covers the once barren hillsides. Experiencing these comebacks makes all the hard work and long hours incredibly worthwhile.

Nature.org:

What are your favorite experiences on Santa Cruz Island?

Lotus Vermeer:

There are so many. A few months after all of the feral pigs had been removed, I hiked to the top of Sierra Blanca, one of the highest points on the island, and I saw little island live-forevers (a succulent plant) and island buckwheat sprouting out of bare ground that still bore the scars from pig-rooting activities. I knew I was witnessing some of the first signs of native habitat recovery, and I was awed by the beauty.
Another powerful memory I have is when we released one of the last foxes from our captive breeding program; I watched it bound away and disappear into the chaparral. This was a monumental moment for me, since the closure of the captive breeding facilities marked a very significant stage in the recovery of the foxes. The release of the last of the captive foxes indicated we had turned the corner on our recovery efforts.

Nature.org:

If you could change anything about working on islands, what would it be?

Lotus Vermeer:

I would change how difficult the logistics are. It’s not just the science and the conservation work that are challenging on islands; it’s the getting there and then putting in place and managing the operations to facilitate the work. I work in these wild, wonderful, remote places, but that’s also what makes them so challenging.


About the Interviewee

Lotus Vermeer is the Conservancy’s Santa Cruz Island project director. With her PhD in marine biology from renowned research institute Dalhousie University, Dr. Vermeer has dedicated her career to conserving and restoring island ecosystems.

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