A scientist conducting groundbreaking research into mangroves in Sri Lanka has become the first PhD student whose studies were fully funded by Earthwatch.
Dr Priyantha Kumara, who was working under the guidance of Earthwatch scientist Professor Mark Huxham from Edinburgh Napier University, learned in March that he had successfully defended his thesis and would be awarded his PhD. His thesis examines the impacts of tree density on the functionality of planted mangroves in Sri Lanka. Earthwatch funded Dr Kumara's studies through a grant from Zurich Financial Services and provided volunteer teams to help to plant mangroves and collect data.
Dr Kumara, right, collects data with a volunteer in Sri Lanka.
Explaining why he undertook his PhD studies, Dr Kumara said: "People knew that higher mangrove planting densities would provide more benefits for the environment and help mitigate against increased atmospheric CO2, but they had a doubt about the potential high tree mortality in the higher densities due to competition between the trees. No one had run an experiment until then on that issue and so we were interested in running an experiment to find the answer."
Dr Kumara originally studied for a degree in Marine Sciences in 2005 at the University of Ruhuna, Matara, Sri Lanka. In 2006 he was selected as a PhD student by two Earthwatch lead scientists, Professor Jayatissa, from the University of Ruhuna's Department of Botany, and Professor Mark Huxham. Professor Huxham is conducting Earthwatch-supported research into mangrove ecosystems on the Kenyan coast.
Over the next four years Dr Kumara conducted research into mangroves at two main sites - Puttalam lagoon, Palakuda, north-west Sri Lanka, and Rekawa lagoon in southern Sri Lanka. His responsibilities in the field included instructing Earthwatch volunteers in the collection of scientific data and managing the health and safety of volunteers in the field, as well as recruiting volunteers from local organisations. In addition to analysing the data collected, in 2010 Dr Kumara organised a national conference on mangrove management in Sri Lanka where he highlighted the values of his findings to mangrove management purposes. Two peer-reviewed scientific papers resulted from his studies and his findings were presented at international conferences.
As part of the study, mangroves were planted at different densities and data on growth, sedimentation and faunal species that the mangroves support were collected over a period of three years. Significantly, Dr Kumara discovered that higher mangrove planting densities facilitated higher survival of mangroves.
He added: "We found that trees do not experience competition at higher densities. Also, individual tree growth rate was not affected, indicating that the higher densities can absorb more atmospheric CO2 over the lower densities. The higher densities also supported higher sediment accumulations, plus higher soil elevations. This suggests we can get more environmental benefits from increasing the planting density in mangrove plantations."
Earthwatch volunteers can join a mangroves research project on the Kenyan coast.
During the completion of his PhD, Dr Kumara was honoured as the most innovative postgraduate student at Edinburgh Napier University and his study profile was published in the university's 2010/11 postgraduate student prospectus.
His study has also donated nearly 10,000 planted mangrove trees to Sri Lanka and in particular, the planted plots at the Palakuda site attract more shrimps and fish at high tide supporting the local fishery.
Executive Vice-President of Earthwatch Nigel Winser said: "We are thrilled to hear the news that Kumara has been successful in his studies and I have no doubt that he will go on to be a leading mangrove scientist in Sri Lanka. Supporting emerging scientists in developing countries is core to our mission of building knowledge and skills both locally and internationally."
In 2010 Dr Kumara won a research grant from the Earthwatch Neville Shulman Awards and has used the money to start a further mangrove project investigating functionality of restored mangroves in north-western Sri Lanka. The project is recording growth data from older mangrove plantations and is involving teams of junior school students from local schools, and regional field officers from the Sri Lankan Coastal Conservation Department.
Join Professor Mark Huxham and colleagues and make a contribution to important mangroves research as a volunteer on the Earthwatch project Tidal Forests of Kenya.