Research That Hits Home
Some Southwestern biology students are getting the opportunity this year to conduct research that will have real-life impact.
Working under Biology Professors Ben Pierce and Romi Burks, the students are doing studies that will be used to help determine whether the Georgetown Salamander is placed on the Endangered Species List.
The Georgetown salamander (Eurycea naufragia) is a small salamander that is believed to exist only in Williamson County. It lives in springs found in the South, Middle and North Forks of the San Gabriel River and in wet caves. The salamander is threatened because many of the springs where it lives have been degraded by development.
In 2010, Pierce received a $25,000 grant to study the local salamander populations. He has received an additional $35,000 to continue the research through July.
Pierce is studying salamander populations at two locations – the county-owned Twin Springs Preserve west of Lake Georgetown and a spring on the North San Gabriel River. He now has five years of data on the salamander population at the North San Gabriel Spring and three years worth of data on the salamander population at the Twin Springs Preserve. The data are collected through monthly counts of salamanders and studies known as “mark-recapture” studies.
This semester Pierce has three students helping him with the research. The students meet every Friday, with two days a month dedicated to field work and the other two Fridays dedicated to analyzing their findings.
Last fall, three additional students working with Burks began visiting the springs to collect bugs in the water that the salamanders might eat. These studies will help determine how much food is available to them. “These insects are also a good indicator of water quality,” Pierce said.
Burks said she and her students hope to have a poster ready to present at the Texas Academy of Sciences meeting in March.
The salamander’s fate has become front-page news in recent months as local developers fear what might happen if the amphibian is placed on the Endangered Species List. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service says it has enough data to make a determination – and is expected to do so in March – but Williamson County officials want more research done.
Regardless of the politics surrounding the salamander situation, Pierce said the scientific facts are clear-cut. “This is a species that is only found in a small area that is affected by urbanization,” he said.
Pierce said when he came to Southwestern he had no idea his research would become the center of so much attention. He had not actually studied the Georgetown Salamander before he moved to Georgetown, but became interested in it after a representative from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department came to speak to his evolutionary biology class his first semester at Southwestern and talked about the salamander.
Pierce said his students are very interested in the practical implications of their research and they talk frequently about the criteria used for placing species on the Endangered Species List and the process through which this occurs.
For some of his students, the research has real-life personal implications as well. 2011 graduate Alex Hall said the research experience he gained working on the Georgetown Salamander study definitely helped him get into the Ph.D. program in quantitative biology at The University of Texas at Arlington. He is now trying to find his own reptile or amphibian to study.
“Dr. Pierce’s infectious enthusiasm for amphibian biology and his peerless understanding of genetics led me to the UT Arlington biology program, which is best known for its cutting-edge herpetology and genome biology sub-disciplines,” Hall said. “Working with the Georgetown Salamander and other students in Dr. Pierce’s lab instilled in me a very real-world conservation mentality implicit to current biological theory.”
Ashley Wall, a senior biology major, has been working with Pierce since the end of her sophomore year to determine the environmental stressors associated with the decline of the salamanders. “It’s a rewarding experience and has personally aided my search for a graduate school by granting me the experience necessary to be a qualified candidate,” Wall said. “Whether a student plans on conducting professional research after undergraduate school or pursuing an entirely different path, experiences such as these help shape themselves as well as their perspective on ecology and life.”