A World Like No Other

A World Like No Other

The Florida Everglades fascinates, captivates, and calls to University of Miami scientists who venture into Everglades National Park—which is celebrating its 75th anniversary—to protect this extraordinary ecosystem.
The Florida Everglades fascinates, captivates, and calls to University of Miami scientists who venture into Everglades National Park—which is celebrating its 75th anniversary—to protect this extraordinary ecosystem.


From the visual variations in water and soil, Howell deciphers the type of vegetation and the thickness of the muck, all clues to knowing where to spot these particular salamanders, a main focus of his research in the Everglades—the vast, unique South Florida ecosystem that has been his classroom since he arrived at the University. “You just got to be out there practicing; it’s just like everything else,” says Howell. “You start to get a sense of where the salamanders like to be and where your traps can be the most effective. It’s all about being out there.”

And Howell has been “out there” a lot as part of his studies. He’s scheduled to receive his doctorate next spring, and that diploma will represent a unique and extraordinarily valuable skill set and knowledge base. Howell has spent 10 consecutive years in college, the past six at the University where, buoyed by the prestigious Dean’s Fellowship, National Science Foundation graduate research fellowship, and other grants, he has advanced his life’s calling as a conservation biologist.

On a recent Sunday morning this fall, Howell was in his habitat—the Big Cypress National Preserve. Birds arced and glided in the azure sky above, and alligators lounged close by in the fenced canal. He wore a green University “Grad Student” T-shirt, donned a Kings Canyon National Park 1940 cap, and shared his fascination with the Everglades.

“There’s no other place like this in the world,” he says. “I just really like getting out here. Even when I’m not working during the winter, I’m normally out camping, either at Flamingo or over on Bear Island and going for hikes, cruising at night trying to catch snakes, doing wildlife photography, invasive species removal— whatever,” he adds. “I’ve just fallen in love with the place and consider it a great honor, honestly, to be able to work on protecting it and to be a piece of the puzzle that works on understanding and protecting this place.”

Howell is a herpetologist, a person who studies reptiles and amphibians or, as he says, I study creepy, crawly things.

His inclination to protect and understand the natural world began early. He grew up near Baltimore, Maryland, and developed an early awe and affinity for the spotted turtle.

“It’s an amazing, completely armored animal unique in its defensive structure,” explains Howell. “As part of their evolutionary history, the shoulder girdle has shifted inside their rib cage skeletal structure, and their effective life history strategy has allowed them to outlive the dinosaur.”

By sixth grade he was excelling in life sciences and biology and closely tracking the exploits of Steve Irwin, the acclaimed Australian zookeeper, conservationist, and wildlife expert, on the television series, “The Crocodile Hunter.”

“I loved his ethos—he really just wanted to save the world—to make as much money as possible to buy land to conserve it to protect wildlife,” recalls Howell, admitting that he began to see himself as a wildlife “Hunter” as well. He found inspiration, too, when he read Aldo Leopold’s classic “A Sand County Almanac” in middle school.

Howell went on to attend Towson College, majored in biology with a focus on organismal ecology, and earned his B.A.—the first in his family to earn a college degree. The opportunity to continue his studies at the University of Miami offered thrilling possibilities.

He visited Miami and met with Chris Searcy, an associate biology professor in the College of Arts and Sciences. Searcy would become his advisor and mentor.

Howell has a vivid recollection of his first visit to the Everglades, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas’ celebrated “River of Grass,” an environmental wonder he had only imagined up to then.

“It was a crisp clear day in January, and we were on the Anhinga Trail. I had never seen a wood stork in the wild, and it had always been my dream to see one—and there it was. It was so cool, and then to see the softshell turtles swimming through the water and alligators basking everywhere. It was incredibly impressive in the middle of winter to see all that diversity,” Howell notes.

His research focuses broadly on understanding what’s happening with the reptiles and amphibians and how management practices are impacting them. Ultimately, together with Searcy and colleagues, the team will provide recommendations to the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) and Everglades National Park with the aim of conserving those species in the future.

The research has three major focus areas. First, Howell is analyzing long-term data sets to see what has changed and to assess the cause. He has compared data from two sets for the period 1996-2019 and determined there’s been roughly a 75 percent decline in the Everglades’ amphibian abundances.

Second, since 2018, he has been working on the grounds of the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, specifically at the Loxahatchee Impoundment Landscape Assessment (LILA), an 80-hectare landscape model and living laboratory for Everglades restoration near Boynton Beach, Florida. By implementing management strategies in a controlled area—such as changing the hydrological regime or the amount of water flow through the ecosystem—the team is trying to figure out how that’s impacting the community composition. Together with other scientists such as Eric Kline of SFWMD and Mark Cook, LILA’s scientific director, they’re conducting invasive species removal to assess whether the impact is positive and worthwhile.

The largest and most recent component has been the focus on understanding the natural history of the giant aquatic salamanders—their diet, population dynamics, and home ranges—and then updating the Everglades energy flow model with the new information about those species.

Three Major Research Areas

Sirens and the amphiumas are some of the largest extant amphibians in the world, yet Howell is aware of only one study on the latter and none on the sirens within the Everglades ecosystem.

“We’d been catching a lot of them at the study site, and knowing that they were understudied really inspired us to study them,” he points out. “Our estimates are that their densities are five to six times what we originally thought.”

That abundance may be critical. The sirens primarily eat apple snails, and the amphiumas primarily eat crayfish, which means they’re eating the same food sources as wading birds—a principle focus of Everglades conservation.

His team has yet to determine whether the competition for the food source is impacting the wading birds. Howell highlights the nuanced interdependences ever present in the ecosystem.

“There could be just so many snails, so many crayfish, that the limiting factor is not that the salamanders are eating too many crayfish, but instead it’s that the ibises just can’t find enough of them fast enough to keep eating them. We just don’t know yet,” the herpetologist explains.

Studies such as Howell’s require incredible diligence and no small degree of inconvenience.

One study spanned 10 weeks and required four weeks from mid-July to mid-August of consecutive workdays for field visits. Up at 5 a.m., to the lab by 5:30 a.m., then either a drive to the airport to catch a helicopter or travel by airboat or canoe to get to any one of 30 different research sites spread across the entirety of the 1.5 million acres of the slow-moving swamp—60 miles wide and 100 miles long— to check the traps and log the readings, then on to the next site until afternoon and then make the trip back home.

Despite delays with travel and getting funds administered, complicated logistics and transport, and hours on site in the sweltering summer heat, the experience was wondrous.

“I didn’t really think that I’d ever get to do that kind of work because it’s very logistically challenging,” says Howell, pointing out that because management of the Everglades is divided—SFWMD manages the water conservation areas, and the Department of Interior manages Everglades National Park—research is often siloed. Few biologists get the experience he did.

30 Research Sites

It was tons of work, but very, very cool getting to see the entire Everglades ecosystem from top to bottom.


“All the way south of Lake Okeechobee to the top of Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, down to basically where the mangroves start. It was a huge area to cover,” Howell says.

Howell is excited to pass the research baton on to a protégé, a new Ph.D. student partner who has joined the research team.

“I wish I could just do a brain dump and transfer my brain files over to him instead of him having to go through it all,” says Howell, then runs through a long list of basic stuff—annual samplings that must be done the same way to keep the data consistent and comparable, skills on how to pick and tag, radio tracking, and implants with the polymers. “It’s complicated, but easy enough to teach.”

Howell is especially proud of the salamander research—the largest ever conducted—and hopes those studies will continue. He emphasizes the collaborative inroads made with SFWMD and LILA and says the decisions about what will be studied going forward and new planning goals will be decided at the upcoming stakeholder meeting that involves professors Searcy and Michelle Afkhami, who has been working with students in the Everglades since 2018, and other biologists.

After 10 straight years of college, Howell is “very, very ready” to graduate and move on in his career. He and his romantic partner, a specialist in emergency medicine—the two bonded over a discussion about venomous snakes—will soon learn the location of her medical residency, and the two will travel wherever she’s assigned. Howell will explore optimum opportunities for his ophiophilist instincts.

Given what he has learned, as he looks to the horizon, does he feel hopeful for the Everglades as an ecosystem?

“Being a conservation biologist is a very depressing field, especially right now,” Howell answers.

He references a restudy of his favorite spotted turtles that compared two periods 1986-1993 with 2014-2017. The results followed the same trend as that of the study on amphibians: a 50-percent decline in the abundances of the turtles. Howell points to increased development that brings road mortality and mesopredators—raccoons, skunks, feral cats, and all those things that predate nests and juvenile turtles—as the major culprit.

“Yet the work in the Everglades is definitely encouraging—it’s the largest and most expensive restoration project in the whole world ever initiated,” Howell says. “So, the fact that just enough people care enough and that Congress is spending money here is really good.”

He highlights the regrowth in bird populations, noting that the numbers of wading birds, waterfowl, ducks, and others are at historical values.

“There’s a huge amount of effort put into conserving those populations, so that they can exist in the future,” he says. “Yet that shows you that when you have targeted management actions, it works, and we can restore these populations. We have evidence that that’s the case.”

Howell highlights the juxtaposition that some species are rebounding while overall the scenario remains bleak.

“There’s a lot of Everglades restoration work I’m involved in that shows reason to be optimistic about certain populations, but in general a lot of things are declining quite rapidly in front of our eyes. We don’t seem to be doing as much as we need to, to prevent that from happening,” he notes.”

Animal Collage

Everglades Research Roundup

Michelle Afkhami, associate professor of biology, studies the interactions between plants and microbiomes in the soil that often help plants and trees grow. For the past two years, her research in collaboration with the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) seeks to learn how microbiomes and hydrological management impact the growth of tree islands, one of nine ecosystems in the Everglades.

“Tree islands are nutrient hotspots, so they are important for other fauna such as alligators and other plants and animals native to this region. They make up a small part of the Everglades but are very important for ecosystem function if we want to really restore the Everglades,” she says.

Afkhami and her students care for these trees in the University’s greenhouse to understand the stability of each species and how they react to varying amounts of water. They also assess soil samples, sequence the genes of the microbes in the lab, and compare them to the soil microbiomes of artificially constructed tree islands within an 80-hectare experimental landscape in the Everglades. Results are shared every six months with SFWMD to support efforts to conserve the vital biological heritage of the region.

Traci Ardren, professor of anthropology, is researching the evidence of sustained pre-Columbian human occupation and socio-ecological interaction within Everglades National Park. Utilizing archaeological data on dietary and cultural patterns recovered at a prehistoric tree island site, her collaborative research team is exploring the role of ancient human populations in the formation or augmentation of tree islands, one of the Everglades’ distinct ecosystems.

The collaborative effort between environmental scientists and archaeologists seeks to foster more accurate identification of anthropogenic environmental impacts over time.

Kim Grinfeder, director of the Interactive Media Program in the School of Communication, together with partners in 2018 developed SwampScapes, an award-winning virtual reality and multiplatform exploration of the Everglades. The immersive documentary allows people of all abilities to experience the wonders of the ecosystem without needing to physically visit. A curriculum to accompany the film was created and has been utilized by about 4,000 middle-school students.

Along with Rafael Araujo, M.A. ’98, professor in the Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science, and Ruth Ron, from the School of Architecture, Grinfeder developed Mangrove City, an interdisciplinary class that uses computer graphics on a digitalized platform to emulate the experience of living in a tidal community.

“Mangrove City aims to teach about the critical importance of the mangroves. You paddleboard down canals, stop at different stations along the way to learn to identify different mangroves, match the bird sounds, and experience the tidal wave movement—imagine ‘SwampScapes’ on steroids,” he says.

“In my classes, there is no right or wrong answer—it’s how good your argument can be, how fact-based and well-founded you can argue. It’s not a math question; it’s not just science. It’s trying to figure out the best solution for an ever-evolving and changing world.”

Marc Knecht, professor and chair of the Department of Chemistry, in collaboration with Leonidas Bachas, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, leads a team that studies how chemical reactions can be used to clean pollutants from Everglades water systems. Their research uses nano materials activated by sunlight to drive the degradations of pollutants—organic molecules, pesticides, flame retardants, etc.—that are released into the Everglades.

The team will be submitting a paper that documents some of their most surprising findings of how the nanoparticles, based on the catalyst, prompt a variety of intermediate chemical structures.

Chris Searcy, associate professor in the Department of Biology, is a conservation biologist who has been researching the Everglades since he arrived in Miami in 2016.

His initial involvement focused on a collaborative experimental landscape project that replicated all elements of the Everglades system. Using a giant pump to manipulate water flow through determined cells, the team could assess for optimum hydrologic conditions. The landscape model has driven a range of other projects and advanced the efficacy of the restoration effort.

With herpetologist Hunter Howell on the team, they’ve expanded research of amphibian trends to better understand their impact on the Everglades food web.

“I’m personally an amphibian and reptile biologist, so those are unexplored areas that were of interest to me. There are other things that remain to be discovered about the Everglades, and we just need to keep understanding it better. It’s no longer a natural system—humans have put themselves in charge of the Everglades. So now that we’re in charge of it, we need to do it right,” Searcy notes.

Harold Wanless, professor in the Department of Geography and Sustainable Development, has researched changes in the Everglades since the 1960s relating to salt-water intrusion and the collapse of wetlands because of storm events and sea-level rise.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in 1992, his research team accessed NOAA photographs from the 1920s that established a baseline for hurricane damage to coastal mangroves, which have deep root systems that are ideal for capturing carbon and removing it from the atmosphere.

“A lot of the mangrove coast has been losing out to erosion. When salt water gets into mangroves, the fresh water wetlands dies and decays, and the soil collapses and it turns to open water. One of the focuses of the past decade was trying to get places like Everglades National Park to actively encourage the regrowth of mangroves, which sometimes takes a little redoing of the plumbing to get good water to circulate,” Wanless points out.

Richard Weisskoff, professor and chair of the Department of International Studies, has developed an expertise for economic modeling and policy analysis that has been applied for a range of environmental elements—coral reefs, beaches, forests, recreational and industrial parks, and farmland—around the world. In South Florida, he applied his models to water from the Everglades as a vital resource for South Florida.

“I wanted to model the entire region of the Everglades by mapping it out and watching it grow over the next 30 years, and then find out if there would be enough water to support Everglades restoration as well as the future population,” he explains.

Kelly Cox, J.D./M.P.S. ’16, environmental attorney and advocate, is the director of Everglades Policy for the National Audubon Society and a lecturer at the Rosenstiel School since 2017, where she teaches environmental law and fish and wildlife law.

With Audubon, Cox focuses on advancing the comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, the framework built in the 1990s of some 60 different projects that are to be completed within a 30-year timeline.

“We have a playbook, and getting those projects funded and making sure they’re working the way they were intended is my top priority.”


A World Like No Other