By Christina Fuoco-Karasinski
Ali Patton doesn’t take being a marine biologist lightly.
The Playa del Rey resident is diversifying her educational pursuits by studying terrestrial and marine animals — all in the name of becoming a great scientist.
She’s earning her master’s degree through Miami University and its Project Dragonfly, which allowed her to study in Belize, Namibia and Mongolia.
“I chose the final two places — Namibia and Mongolia — because they were outside of my comfort zone,” she says.
“I’m a better scientist if I learn things that aren’t marine based as well. It was definitely an experience. It was difficult not having running water for several days at a time. The people are amazing, and the ecosystem is very open.”
Project Dragonfly’s Earth Expeditions graduate courses have engaged thousands of people in firsthand educational and scientific research at critical conservation field sites in Africa, Australia, Asia and the Americas. Dragonfly is in the biology department at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
This past June in Mongolia, she focused on Pallas’ cat, Przewalski’s horse and participatory conservation media.
“Vast,” Patton says aptly describes Mongolia, where animals have thousands of acres in which to roam. That makes the animals difficult to track.
“You don’t always see them,” she says. “That was part of the challenge, trying to find certain animals. One of the main ones we looked at were Przewalski’s horses. They were extinct in the wild.”
Przewalski’s horse — otherwise known as takhi, Mongolian wild horse or Dzungarian horse — is native to the steppes of Central Asia. It is named after the Russian geographer and explorer Nikolay Przhevalsky.
According to Our Endangered World, only about 2,000 Przewalski’s horses remain in the wild.
Patton observed their interactions with other animals, their eating habits and population numbers.
“They’re being brought back to the habitat,” she says. “We also looked at Pallas’ cat (or manul). They are these small, fluffy, grumpy-looking cats. They’re hilarious.
“They are very elusive. You don’t see them wandering around.”
Scientists are concerned because, due to the number of hoofs on the ground, the soil is compacted — so much so that rain doesn’t soak in.
“It runs down and creates trenches,” she says.
“There is a lot of erosion due to this. We were looking at different ways this could be adjusted.
“Experts I spoke to in Mongolia predicted this years ago. The livestock just kept going and going and going. Locals notice there’s not as much food; however, there are more animals and more livestock.”
Patton says it’s a difficult situation as grass needs to be consumed by livestock and native animals. However, they are destroying the habitat by eating too much.
“The people need to make a living,” she says. “They need food. They make a lot of their money from having that livestock. That’s where the struggle lies — how it’s regulated and how the ecosystem can be protected and still make a living.”
Patton hails from Hawaii, where she, like a young Barack Obama, attended Punahou School. She moved to Playa del Rey in 2016, after earning her undergraduate degree in Hawaii.
“There are a lot of opportunities out here for marine biologists,” she says. “I love Playa del Rey. It’s so walkable. The beach is right here.”
She works at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach as the mammal and bird husbandry department’s volunteer coordinator.
“I take care of the animals, such as sea lions and penguins,” she says. “I’ve just taken over being the in charge of the volunteers for that area. We’re a nonprofit, and we rely on skilled volunteers who come in every week.”
Learn more about Project Dragonfly at https://bit.ly/ProjectDragonflyPVM