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Putting Nature Knowledge to Work

Charlie Kwit routinely assigns students in his wildlife vegetation and habitat class to help remove non-native invasive plants from selected acreage.

While the labor benefits the landowners, it also allows his students to put their classroom knowledge to work.

“I was sold from the beginning on incorporating a service-learning component to my class,” said Kwit, an associate professor with joint appointments in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in the College of Arts and Sciences and the Department of Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries in the Herbert College of Agriculture. For this and other efforts to promote interest in biology and ecology in the Southeast, Kwit received the College of Arts and Sciences’ 2019 Faculty Academic Outreach Teaching Award.

Kwit’s research focuses on plant-wildlife interactions and the important roles animals play in the seed dispersal process.

For the Wildlife Vegetation and Habitat class, Kwit partners with neighborhood and community organizations, including Ijams Nature Center and Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum, which need help removing non-native plants—such as bush honeysuckle, privet, English Ivy, and winter creeper—that inhibit the growth of native plants.

While his students enjoy being outdoors, the hands-on work helps them understand why removing invasive plants is important. At the same time, they’re assisting community organizations.

Kwit also promotes experiential learning by encouraging students to volunteer for community efforts to remove non-native invasive plants from sites around the area. He supervises UT’s Naturalists Club which sponsors birdwatching and flower hikes, mushroom hunts, and other nature activities. He also chairs the Southeastern Chapter of the Ecological Society of America and earmarks chapter funds so students can attend meetings to network with faculty and professionals.

Kwit’s own research takes him on periodic trips to the Exuma Bahamas—an area of 365 small islands—to study two critically endangered subspecies of Northern Bahamian rock iguanas.

While helping a team from Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium evaluate the health of the iguanas, Kwit keeps a trained eye on the iguanas’ excrement for intact seeds of native fruits. This is how he takes note of the differences in the iguanas’ ecosystem function on islands where iguanas are fed by tourists versus those where they are not.

“Iguanas are the largest fruit-eating animal in the Bahamian archipelago and the only creatures able to naturally transport the seeds from the area’s big fruits,” he said.

When he’s not working, Kwit enjoys hiking, running, and birdwatching, especially fruit-eating birds in the fall.

“I enjoy sitting on my porch and watching migrating birds like rose-breasted grosbeaks, thrushes and scarlet tanagers,” he said.

-Story by Amy Blakely