Flora and fauna

Minot State University assistant biology professor Alexey Shipunov likes tropical weather, especially after a long North Dakota winter, and doesn’t mind roughing it a bit in a forest filled with interesting plants, bugs and reptiles.

So what better place to take his biogeography students on a field trip last spring than Puerto Rico, a locale where he has enjoyed vacationing and which has a unique number of climates all in one region?

Shipunov and a group of students traveled to the U.S. territory in March, over the spring break.

They visited the El Yunque National Forest, which the students said in a prepared report is the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Forest System. The students wrote that the forest is famed for its many species of plants and trees. There are thousands of native plants, including 150 different fern species and 240 tree species.

Shipunov and his students also visited the Humancao Nature Reserve, located on the southeast coast of Puerto Rico. The reserve includes beach, mangroves, swamps, marshes, channels and an interconnected lagoon system. The reserve also has a sugarcane plantation that closed in 1970 and an old naval base bunker, and is home to turtles and 90 different species of birds.

The Guanica Dry Forest, where they also visited, is a subtropical dry forest in southwest Puerto Rico. The forest occurs in a rain shadow caused by a mountain range that covers the island from east to west, according to the students. Nine of 16 species of birds that can be found in Puerto Rico can be found in the dry forest. There are 700 different plant species in the forest, some of them endangered.

Students and Shipunov also visited the Parguera coral reef, where there are coral reefs, seagrass beds and mangrove forests.

The biogeography students’ report abounds with descriptions of and photographs of exotic (to North Dakotans) trees, plants and flowers – screw pine, hibiscus, clusia, fig, mango and coconut trees, as well as different species of moss and ferns. The students’ report can be found at (

Shipunov, a botanist, said he developed the biogeography class because he had found that his biology students had little frame of reference when he spoke in class about mangroves or where different species of ferns might grow. While they might look up the information online or in their textbooks, there is no substitute for actually traveling to Puerto Rico and seeing it for themselves, he said.

Shipunov, who is originally from Russia, where he had a long career, said he is also proud of his greenhouse next to MSU’s Cyril Moore Hall. When he first arrived on campus, the greenhouse was practically bare but over the last few years Shipunov has filled it with plants and trees of every description. Some of the plants were collected in places like Puerto Rico; others grew from seeds he brought with him and some plants have been salvaged after they were in danger of being thrown out. Shipunov uses filtered water to water his plants. Some of his students have helped label his plants and help to take care of them. Shipunov said the sensitive plant, or mimosa pudica, which has leaves that shrink away when touched by a human hand, is one of his students’ favorites.

Shipunov said he will likely teach the biogeography class again and take students on another excursion to Puerto Rico within a couple of years.