Ocean Literacy and the Red Knot

by Carole McCauley
Northeastern University Marine Science Center, Nahant, MA

The long and tenuous journey of a migrating shorebird, the red knot, is the subject of a new book by Gloucester, MA-based writer and environmentalist, Deborah Cramer. “The Narrow Edge: A Tiny Bird, an Ancient Crab & an Epic Journey” is a highly informative narrative of Cramer’s treks from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic, where she tracks – over the course of a migration season – the movements of an intrepid sandpiper, the red knot, one of six subspecies of Calidris sandpipers.

Poignant is the parallel between the distance and conditions this improbable sandpiper endures to reach its goal and the learning journeys facilitated by marine educators. This may be particularly true of the journeys of underserved youth, whose environmental education may be challenged by sporadic engagement, competition for limited resources, and the requirement that many ingredients synchronize in the recipe for environmental literacy.  These audiences are less likely to have well-stocked feeding grounds for learning and inspiration.

The red knot, recently designated as a Threatened Species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, faces similar challenges – reduced feeding habitat, long stretches flying between recharges, and increasingly limited resources on the ground to sustain life – particularly tight competition for a decreasing volume of prey. The story of the red knot is as prolific and compelling as more universally known chronicles of animal migration such as those of the sea turtles or Monarch butterflies. “The Narrow Edge” details key facets of red knot biology (e.g., how they are uniquely adapted to double their weight to prepare for a long flight), critical details of their ideal prey (e.g., “superfood” horesehoe crab eggs), and numerous threats to the life-sustaining habitats required by knots and their prey at every stop in their lengthy journey.

Indeed, to understand the incredible and varied conditions required for the red knot to exist, voluminous research is presented that presents and synthesizes content related to most of the Ocean Literacy Principles, particularly related to the finite resources of the ocean, meteorology and climate, nutrient cycling, biodiversity and ecosystems, the interconnectedness of humans and marine resources, and the need for research and discovery. The book is also full of accounts of everyday heroes devoted, in various ways, to shorebird conservation – from an Olympic athlete-turned-biologist to a wealthy estate owner to field biologists to a military veteran for whom half a lifetime of shoreline monitoring was the balm that eased his post traumatic stress.

This compelling account of the red knot is one worth telling, carefully pulling together and presenting the Essential Principles of Ocean Literacy in a story that is not without hope and inspiration, the fuel that even marine educators need when flying long and hard through our busy seasons.

See Deborah Cramer speak about her new book at the following events:

New England Aquarium 

Thursday, Sept. 24nd, 7:00 p.m.

 

Mystic Aquarium

Tuesday, Oct. 6th, 6:30pm

 

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