When I arrive on the Greek island of Naxos on a warm, breezy day in May, I’m met at the port by Johannes Foufopoulos, an associate professor at U-M's School of Natural Resources and Environment, who also teaches in LSA’s Program in the Environment, and two graduate students who are spending the summer there as well. The three men are dressed the way one would imagine field biologists dress: bandanas at their necks, long sleeves despite the heat, loose pants and hiking boots. They prefer to do much of their fieldwork before the heat of the day, and though they have much work ahead of them, they seem happy and relaxed, in good spirits, a productive morning already behind them.

Naxos is the largest island of the Cyclades, the island group in the Aegean southeast of mainland Greece. It is fertile, famous for its potatoes, and on the island you can also find olives and figs, grapes, and citrus. As we drive around the island, Foufopoulos, who is studying the island’s biology, explains how the Aegean islands were formed: 10,000 years ago it did not exist. Before the Cyclades there was one large mass called Cycladia, its north end defined by what is now the island of Andros and its southern border by Ios. At the end of the last ice age, the global climate warmed, and the ice shields melted. Sea levels rose, breaking up the landmass into smaller islands. 

Today these smaller islands are a wonderful place for scientists like Foufopoulos to study natural ecosystems and the ways species adapt to habitat fragmentation, for the sake of good science and also to shed insight onto how the natural world will adapt to the warming global climate. Examining what protects the survival of these small populations can translate to the protection of isolated wildlife populations beyond the Aegean, across the globe.

Don't Fade Away

Growing up in Greece, Foufopoulos knew he wanted to study biology from a young age. As a teenager he realized that the things he cared about—the natural world, biological diversity—were disappearing. “Species don’t go extinct with an explosion but with a whimper,” Foufopoulos says, “They fade away.”

Species extinction is at the forefront of much of the work done by Foufopoulos and his team. Island ecosystems, because they are isolated and because they typically have a lower diversity of species than the mainland, are particularly susceptible to change.

Johannes Foufopoulos (left) and two students conducting research on the Greek island of Naxos. 

One of their species of interest is the Aegean wall lizard, Podarcis erhardii, and if you’ve spent any time on a Greek island you’ve probably seen this small, greenish brown reptile scurrying between rocks and walls. Like many island species, the Aegean wall lizard doesn’t look—or behave—the same on every island. On the small island of Skyros, for instance, Foufopoulos tells me, the lizards are large and hyper-aggressive toward each other’s young. The lizards have also evolved the ability to shed their tails when there are venomous predators around, like on Naxos. The tail releases and provides a squirming distraction while the lizard runs to safety. Behaviors and adaptations like these could affect how the species will adapt to global climate change.

He engages the locals and makes them a part of the project— studying how grazing alters island vegetation, for instance, is not only relevant for the protection of unique and endangered species, it can also provide herd management guidelines for the local shepherds.

Foufopoulos uses everything as a teaching moment; even during the time spent in the car, Foufopoulos is engaging his students, asking them questions on their research. Foufopoulos is a firm believer in interdisciplinary learning—when discussing sustainability management, for example, the group might not only focus on the present moment but also examine historical sources and visit archeological sites, or invite archeologists to give lectures on the way past societies lived and operated.

Foufopoulos doesn’t just want to be a good mentor. He believes in working together, not just for the sake of logistics, but for a larger purpose. “If you want to change something, you must have the joint resources of multiple people working for a long period of time on one issue. A little bit here and there won’t do anything,” he says.


Natalie Bakopoulos (MFA '05) is the author of The Green Shore (Simon and Schuster, 2012). She teaches in the English department at U-M and is hard at work on her second novel, titled Take Water with You, set in contemporary Athens and the south of France.