Making a difference in the mangroves

In September 2023, our latest Student Challenge fellows undertook a weeklong scientific expedition, Protecting the Reef's Coastal Frontier.
Earthwatch Student Challenge fellows on the expedition 'Protecting the reef's coastal frontier'. A group of young people standing together with mangrove forest behind them.

On Queensland's tropical coastline, secondary school students turned citizen scientists are advancing research to safeguard Australia's tidal wetlands.

Each year, The George Alexander Foundation supports fellowships for secondary school students in years 10-12 to participate in Earthwatch Australia Student Challenge expeditions: weeklong environmental science fieldwork experiences.

The program sees fellows work alongside qualified scientists on genuine research projects and seeks to connect students with the natural world, improve participation in secondary school science and, ultimately, encourage participants to pursue careers and tertiary qualifications in the environmental sciences. Beyond this, the data collected by these burgeoning citizen scientists contributes to research into Australia's complex environmental challenges.

In September 2023, the Foundation's Chief Executive Officer Paul Conroy, and Program Manager Mairead Phillips travelled to Gladstone, Queensland, joining 12 fellows on the Student Challenge Expedition Protecting the Reef's Coastal Frontier, led by mangrove ecologist and Earthwatch Australia’s Wetlands Program Manager, Jock Mackenzie.

Together, they learnt about mangrove and saltmarsh habitats and the urgent need to monitor and protect Australia’s tidal wetlands.

Likened to the kidneys of the coast, mangroves provide essential ecosystem services. Their benefits include:

  • Shoreline protection against erosion, storms, and flooding.
  • Habitat for wildlife, including breeding and nursery grounds for marine wildlife.
  • Water filtration, protecting the water quality of seagrass habitats and coral reefs.
  • Capturing and stockpiling carbon (sequestration), mitigating carbon emissions produced from human activities.

Unfortunately, climate change and human activity threaten the health of mangrove habitats, and on-the-ground monitoring is needed to understand their impacts.

Enter our Student Challenge fellows. Throughout the expedition, fellows completed fieldwork activities developed by MangroveWatch, a citizen science mangrove monitoring program, collecting data on various indicators of the habitat's health. 

Activities included surveying plant and wildlife biodiversity, crab activity, shoreline habitat condition, and the presence of macro and microplastics.

While surveying plant and wildlife biodiversity, Student Challenge fellows recorded 3 new crab species for the estuary, including Fei, who made an especially exciting discovery; a crab species that hadn't been recorded in the Central Queensland region since 1929. These species records are now officially recorded in Australia's biodiversity repository, the Atlas of Living Australia, via the iNaturalist platform.

This discovery and all the fieldwork conducted throughout the expedition provide insights into the effects of human activity and climate change on the habitat's composition. The resulting research will inform the development of management strategies to protect and enhance these vital habitats.

Over the past decade, 392 Student Challenge fellows have conducted over 15,680 hours of fieldwork, making significant contributions to ongoing research projects to conserve Australia's natural environment. 

Paul Conroy, Chief Executive Officer of The George Alexander Foundation said, "Through this partnership with Earthwatch Australia, the Foundation continues its mission to contribute to a sustainable Australia by supporting environmental education and encouraging young people's commitment to the environment. It was a privilege to see our Student Challenge fellows embrace this challenge, growing their scientific acumen, self-confidence, and passion for the natural world. I look forward to hearing how this experience supports these passionate citizen scientists' studies and future careers."

One Student Challenge fellow shared, "This experience of connecting with like-minded people and caring for the environment has been incredible. Being out in the field was such a surreal experience since there were so many cool and interesting animals to observe. The knowledge I've gained has become more than just a souvenir, but a passion to share with others."


The George Alexander Foundation acknowledges the Balai, Gurang, Gooreng Gooreng and Taribelang Bunda people, the Traditional Custodians of the Boyne River estuary and surrounding landscapes where Protecting the Reef's Coastal Frontier took place. We pay our respects to their Elders past and present. 


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