Science and scientists of Martha’s Vineyard: Luanne Johnson and BiodiversityWorks

A lifelong passion for animals in their natural habitats.

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Luanne Johnson- Courtesy of Paul Levine

For this month’s column, I talked with Luanne Johnson, wildlife and field biologist and the director of Island-based BiodiversityWorks, an organization devoted to wildlife monitoring, research, and mentoring in field biology.

How many of us at the age of 10, playing with toys and games with our friends, knew the path we would follow later in life? Luanne Johnson did; growing up in Mishawaka, Ind, she became fascinated with animals. When I asked her why, she said that her desire to learn about them was fostered by watching “Wild Kingdom” every Sunday. As a 10-year-old she read Dian Fossey’s “Gorillas in the Mist” and learned about the work of Jane Goodall through National Geographic articles. “It was their influence that led me eventually to become a wildlife biologist,” she said.

But zoos came first. Luanne said that as a child on family vacations, she loved to go to places where there was a zoo so she could observe the animals, particularly the primates. But it was not until high school that she had an opportunity to be close with animals, working after school at a wildlife animal rehabilitation center. She said, “It was there that I got my first hands-on experience working to bring birds and mammals back to health.”

Later, at Butler University in Indianapolis, she was working for a degree in zoology, and volunteered at the Indianapolis Zoo. That was in 1988. Within two days of graduation, she began a full-time job at the zoo, caring for the animals in the forest and desert biomes. She told me that she thought that her career was set as a zookeeper, “but after two years I knew my place was with wildlife in their natural habitats, rather than in confinement.”

Luanne’s first opportunity to be in the field came when she was invited to lead nature tours in Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula and Denali National Park. One can imagine how the abundance and variety of animals struck a young woman from the Midwest.

Observation of wildlife had yet to become wildlife research. That step became possible here on the Vineyard on Easter Sunday in 1992 when Tom Chase, now with the Martha’s Vineyard Conservancy, hired Luanne to monitor the Island’s piping plovers for The Trustees of Reservations on Chappaquiddick. From Chappy, she moved on to Hawaii in the late ’90s, where she joined the biological resources division of the United States Geodetic Survey (USGS) to study the endangered palila bird on Hawaii’s Big Island. She was, she said, growing more and more committed to becoming a wildlife biologist. In June 2001 she returned to the Vineyard, and the next year enrolled as a graduate student at Antioch University of New England in Keene, N.H., where she obtained a Ph.D. in environmental studies. For her thesis, she studied the behavioral ecology and population characteristics of striped skunks that inhabited piping plover nesting beaches on the Island.

She said that it was this research that led her to consider the Island as one landscape for a diverse assemblage of wildlife that do not consider the boundaries faced by humans. The preservation of this fauna and their habitat requires not only the efforts of the Island’s conservation organizations to preserve open space, but also Island-wide monitoring of wildlife populations.

With this goal in mind, Luanne and her colleague, Liz Baldwin, began a coastal river otter ecology project in 2009. They studied river otter distribution, abundance, and diet. Luanne applied for a grant from the Edey Foundation, and Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation acted as their fiscal agent. It was the success of the river otter research, and Luanne and Liz’s desire to broaden wildlife research and monitoring across the Island, that led to the establishment of BiodiversityWorks in 2011. Over the years, BiodiversityWorks has focused on monitoring and studying a variety of Island wildlife species, concentrating on their distribution, abundance, behavior, and protection.

Early on, Luanne saw the importance of fostering an awareness of wildlife preservation. She explained, “That’s why Liz and I created a summer mentoring program for high school and college students. It introduces them to research in the field with an emphasis on conservation, biology, and ecology.” BiodiversityWorks hopes to instill in these students the same passion that Luanne feels for observing and studying wildlife. I don’t remember who said this, but to become a scientist requires passion, endurance, and persistence. As for Luanne, she epitomizes the ideal through her stick-to-itiveness that makes BiodiversityWorks one of the Vineyard’s significant conservation efforts.