Meet Chuck Knapp: Conservation Scientist
Dr. Chuck Knapp, Shedd’s director of conservation and research, has been one of Shedd’s most active ambassadors for conservation for nearly 20 years. Anyone who has been on one of Shedd’s iguana research expeditions knows Chuck and his passion for West Indian rock iguanas. Since the early 1990s, he has been a champion of the critically endangered iguana species that populate remote islands in the Bahamas.
Each island or cluster of tiny cays (pronounced “keys”) has its endemic species; Chuck has concentrated on the iguanas of Andros and the Exumas chain. In addition to his months-long fieldwork, Chuck has gone into settlement schools and community meetings to raise local awareness of—and pride in—the unique iguanas and foster a desire to conserve them. His long-time collaboration with the Bahamas National Trust, a conservation organization, resulted in the creation and expansion of a marine park that encompasses the lizards’ dwindling habitat. He was also instrumental in developing an international action plan to ensure the protection of the iguanas on Andros.
What people might not know about Chuck is that he got his start at Shedd in the high school marine biology program—not leading it, but as a 17-year-old student. Through that experience—a week of classes at Shedd, then a week of real fieldwork in the Bahamas aboard Shedd’s research vessel—he says, “I knew that I wanted to dedicate my career to doing ecology-related work.”
As soon as he turned 18, Chuck became a Shedd volunteer. Four years later, as a newly minted college graduate, he was hired as the first tide pool aquarist in the Abbott Oceanarium. He reveals, “Actually, freshwater fishes have always been my real love, but when the opportunity opened up to manage the old Caribbean Reef gallery (the present-day Amazon Rising exhibit), I decided to go for it.” The move proved to be more of a turning point in his career than he could ever have guessed. “That’s when I first became involved with West Indian rock iguanas, and I just became absolutely fascinated with these animals.”
Soon Chuck was taking part in the international effort to save these rarest of lizard species. Shedd was already committed to the conservation of rock iguanas through its exhibit and breeding efforts; with Chuck’s interest, it made sense to expand the iguana program into the field. Each year, Chuck spent several months in the “other” Bahamas—small, hot, rugged islands, largely uninhabited except for iguanas and insects. In addition to conducting original observational studies and making significant discoveries about the iguanas, their habits and their habitat, he also led—and was assisted by—teams of citizen scientists on iguana research expeditions aboard Shedd’s research vessel. During this time, he also earned a master’s degree and a Ph.D.
Chuck spends a little less time in the Bahamas these days as he helps to expand Shedd’s field conservation programs. “An exciting new region for Shedd is Guyana, in South America. It’s largely uncharted territory with an incredibly diverse array of animal species. Shedd can play a significant role by conducting the research that can then be applied to conservation action, specifically in establishing a protected area in Guyana.”
For his own part, Chuck says, “I’m excited to be working with freshwater species. To be able to go to Guyana and do biodiversity assessments, and seine the rivers for fish species that I’ve been fascinated with since I was a little boy is a dream come true for me.”
He’s also excited about Shedd’s new conservation project in local waters. “The work we’re doing with non-native species monitoring and research, seining the local rivers, is very important.”
Obviously, a warm, dry office is not a high priority for Chuck. He literally immerses himself in his work, whether it’s wading into rivers or slogging ashore to hardscrabble cays. And wherever it is that his conservation programs take him, he says, “I wake up every morning and love coming to work.”
You can help support Shedd Aquarium’s conservation mission with a gift to the annual fund.
Posted by Karen Furnweger, web editor