• Biology professor Romi Burks (second from right) stands with the three students she is taking to conduct research in Urugu...
    Biology professor Romi Burks (second from right) stands with the three students she is taking to conduct research in Uruguay this winter. From left to right are Jonathan Miley, Amber Cochran and Amy Miller. The three students will conduct research on apple snails, which are the focus of the research in Burks' lab.

Amber Cochran, Jonathan Miley and Amy Miller have already gained valuable experience working in the lab of biology professor Romi Burks.

This winter they will build on that experience by spending six weeks conducting research in Uruguay.

Burks is taking the three students to Uruguay with funds from a National Science Foundation grant she received in 2011. The grant is designed to help undergraduate students gain experience conducting international research.

Each of the students has designed their own research project to do in Uruguay. The projects all focus on species of apple snails that belong to a diverse family of mollusks known as Ampullariidae.

“This family provides an exciting model to ask questions about biodiversity, conservation, phylogeography and ecology,” Burks said.

Cochran, who is a senior biology major, plans to compare the hatching efficiencies and growth rates of two species of apple snails: Pomacea megastoma, which lays its eggs on rocks, and Pomacea maculata, which lays its eggs primarily on plants. Burks said both species display similar reproductive behaviors, but so far only Pomacea maculata has been transported outside of South America, and has established several exotic, invasive populations globally. Comparing the two species may help Burks and Cochran understand what makes Pomacea maculata such a successful exotic, invasive species.

Miley, who is a senior biology major, plans to study the hybridization between several different species of apple snails − Pomacea maculata, Pomacea megastoma and Pomacea canaliculata – both in their native range and in non-native ranges where possible. He will bring back tissue samples to look at gene sequences for evidence of gene flow or exchange.

“Studying hybridization helps us understand the genetic diversity found within this genus of apple snails,” Burks said.

Miller, who is a sophomore animal behavior major, will study three species of apple snails within the genus Felipponea that are native to Uruguay. In contrast to species within the genus Pomacea, which lay bright pink eggs above the water’s surface, species within the genus Felipponea spend their entire life in the water and lay small groups of gelatinous green eggs. The Felipponea snails  are found in the Rio Uruguay, a system noted for its conservation value.

“Compared to Pomacea, not much has been published about these specific apple snails,” Miller said.   

Burks said the work done by Miller and the other students can lead to novel, and hopefully publishable, results.

Kenneth Hayes, an evolutionary and conservation biologist who is the co-principal investigator on the NSF grant, spent two weeks at Southwestern this fall helping Burks and her students develop their research projects. He and a colleague also set up a molecular ecology lab that will enable the students to process tissue samples for DNA analysis when they come back from the trip.

Two students from the University of Hawaii – which is a partner on the NSF grant – will be joining the Southwestern students in Uruguay. The research expeditions in Uruguay will be led by Uruguayan malacologist Cristhian Clavijo (malocologists are people who study mollusks).

Before the students embark on their field research, they will spend some time at the Natural History Museum in Montevideo, where they will have the opportunity to meet  internationally respected malacologist Fabrizio Scarabino.

They also will attend a day-long symposium on apple snails that is being held in Maldonado, Uruguay, and have the opportunity to collaborate on on-going field experiments directed by Mariana Meerhoff, an associate professor from the University of the Republic who is based in Maldonado.

“By the end of this trip, all the students will be better malacologists,” Burks said. “The world of science needs more participants who value invertebrate diversity.”



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