The Lizard Log

The Langkilde Lab in Action


Leave a comment

Not SLACing off

On July 1, 2014, I officially started my new job as an assistant professor of biology at Wabash College in Indiana, leaving the Langkilde lab behind. (But can you ever really leave the Langkilde lab? The answer is ‘no’, based on all the data analysis and manuscripts that need finishing …). With the new job came a whirlwind of teaching-related activities: writing syllabi, grading, preparing lectures, designing lab activities, grading, purchasing supplies, grading, meeting with students, attending teaching workshops, and grading. (Also, grading). This has been rewarding and interesting work, especially since I have very intimate class sizes (5 and 16) and am teaching topics that I’m really interested in. But, since this blog focuses on the life of academic biologists outside the classroom, I’ll forgo discussing teaching and instead talk about my experience so far trying to launch a research program in the context of a teaching college.

 

Wabash College is a small liberal arts college (aka, “SLAC”). As such, the primary responsibility of the faculty is teaching rather than scholarship and research. However, the college expects, and provides opportunities for, faculty to remain active in their fields. And, I would argue, this increases the quality of faculty teaching and creates priceless educational experiences for students who become engaged in faculty research programs. As a consequence of Wabash’s support of research, I was fortunate to have my own lab space, the opportunity to use several animal rooms, access to the college’s private virgin forest ~30 miles away, a generous amount of start-up funds to purchase equipment and supplies, and regular access to faculty research support funds.

 

My lab space was previously occupied for many years by a small mammal field biologist, Dr. David Krohne (see his textbook here – I think the one reviewer of it is holding back a bit with the stars …). I therefore inherited an interesting array of scientific equipment. Many binoculars and cameras (which, unfortunately, were mostly film cameras) lined the shelves, including some night vision gear. Equipment for building field structures and managing study sites included all kinds of saws, wire, hammers and nails, and metal stakes and tags. There were several slide projectors and many slides of photographs of plants and field sites of unknown significance. I filed away notebooks full of data, including some data collected by Krohne’s own predecessors. Most interestingly, I found a student zoology thesis project from 1964 documenting the amphibians and reptiles of Montgomery County (where Wabash College resides). Many of these herps had never been noted to occur in the county (and may not anymore), which lead me to track down the former student to see if he’d be interested in publishing these county records. As it turns out, this student was William S. Parker, who became a professor and herpetologist (and also studied fence lizards, like the Langkilde Lab!) I’m planning to work with him to publish these records, which would make this my first publication with a Wabash undergrad (albeit 50 years after he graduated!).

DSC_0331[1]

DSC_0332[1]

In addition to these interesting data, student theses, and equipment, there were also more unusual scientific artifacts like stuffed animal specimens, including a bat (randomly sitting in a drawer) and a passenger pigeon.

 

One idea I initially had for a research project was to study some interesting potential behavioral, physiological, and ecological differences between two species of related salamanders (the red-backed salamander, Plethodon cinereus, and the zig-zag salamander, P. dorsalis) which I anticipated would occupy Allee Memorial Woods, the college’s forest property. With my limited time, I’ve only been able to visit the woods when taking Ecology students there for lab activities. Fortunately, this provided me with 8 2-hr sessions in the woods over September and October during which I could either survey for the salamanders myself while students collected data, or could use the students to help search for salamanders as part of a lab exercise teaching study design and fieldwork protocols. The latter proved most useful – several of my students uncovered a location where several red-backed salamanders, a single zig-zag salamander, and a slimy salamander (P. glutinosus) all occurred within a couple meters of each other. Subsequently, the weather became cool and damp enough that red-backed salamanders began turning up all over the forest (though at disappointingly low densities). However, only that single zig-zag salamander was ever found. So my plans have met the reality of the situation on the ground: so far (and maybe it will change in the spring) zig-zag salamanders are not abundant enough to support the types of projects I hoped to do. However, new opportunities also presented themselves. The first, I realized that the color polymorphism that occurs within red-backed salamanders – a well-tread topic of research – could make a good system to explore some of the same questions. The red-backed salamanders are abundant enough that I could collect reasonable numbers of them, and I could readily keep them in the animal rooms – making them easily accessible to undergraduate research assistants with limited time between classes. Second, I learned more about another study system and made fortuitous connection with another researcher.

The lone zigzag salamander (Plethodon dorsalis) that I have found so far.

The lone zig-zag salamander (Plethodon dorsalis) that I have found so far.

 

At Allee Memorial Woods, there is a long history of studying a local population of eastern box turtles (Terrapene c. carolina). Research began in the 1950’s by a former Wabash faculty, Elliott Williams – working with William S. Parker – that produced a 30 year population study. As a charming species with a historical connection to Wabash and of conservation interest, I quickly started toying with potential ways I could work with box turtles. Just as I started considering these ideas, I was put into touch with Steve Kimble, a post-doctoral researcher at nearby Purdue University who wanted to survey the turtles at Allee for infections by ranavirus, an emerging pathogen that we know little about. With Steve in the lead, I tagged along to set up a crowdfunding campaign to provide funds for genetic tests of ranavirus and (most excitingly) the use of trained box turtle-tracking dogs. The project was successfully funded and the dogs were brought in over a weekend. I again implemented my teaching responsibilities into the research program by bringing several students from my Ecology course (one of which needed an opportunity to make up a field trip later in the semester), and the students got a novel experience by assisting with processing the turtles. The dogs turned up 15 turtles. This was less than expected, but we don’t know yet whether we ought to attribute this to a population decline or relatively cool weather.

One of the box turtles found by the turtle-sniffing dogs. This one had a rather bold disposition, which naturally intrigued me.

One of the box turtles found by the turtle-sniffing dogs. This one had a rather bold disposition, which naturally intrigued me. He had a metal tag attached to his shell, that we determined indicates he was born some time prior to 1948!

 

We are still waiting on the ranavirus test results, but I’m thinking about ways I can continue to utilize the box turtles for my research questions and integrate them into my teaching. I observed, and Steve confirmed, that some turtles tended to be very shy (hiding in their shells for a long period time) while others seemed bold (readily emerging from their shells and apparently unfazed by the human presence). Having studied behavioral variation (personality) before, I was very excited about the possibility of studying personality in these turtles. Tadpoles and salamanders are great study organisms, but the turtles will have a key advantage: they are much larger, meaning I can collect blood samples (to link physiological status to personality) and I can attach radiotransmitters for tracking their movements in the field (to link broad-scale behavior in nature to personality). The first lab activities of the semester in my fall Ecology class are centered around exposing the students to research techniques and familiarity with working in the field, in order to prepare them to develop original group projects. I’m thinking radiotracking turtles and conducting personality assays in the field will make for a really good lab activity, and will give me ~10 field assistants for each of two days – not a bad way to kill two birds with one stone.

 

Finally, I’m continuing my tangential work on scorpion evolutionary ecology and behavior. Scorpions require little care, which makes them good for a busy teaching schedule in which I have only scattered blocks of time to do research. Furthermore, their unusual nature and (appearance of) danger make them an exciting subject of study for undergraduates. This has drawn two strong students to me who have already started collaborating with me on a scorpion study. Thus far, they have proven reliable and have produced enough data to begin to reveal interesting trends. By recruiting strong students and using a ‘forgiving’ study system, I’ve already been able to begin putting together a scorpion research project without detracting from my teaching responsibilities.

My laboratory scorpion colonies.

My laboratory scorpion colonies.

So that is the story of my first few months trying to remain an active researcher while focusing my attention on being an effective and dedicated teacher. It creates many challenges, but they are not insurmountable when the projects are scaled to the resources available, the student assistants are talented, the study systems are convenient, collaborative opportunities are utilized, and teaching is blended seamlessly into research. I can’t really assess the success of any of this yet, though, so I’ll have to return to this blog in a couple years when I’ll know how everything turned out. But, I think I’m off to a good start!

Advertisements


Leave a comment

A Rattlesnake Summer

This past summer I began putting the pieces together for my 4 year project investigating the effects of prescribed fire on Timber Rattlesnakes.  The objectives of this project will be to determine how Timber Rattlesnakes are directly impacted by the fire and to determine how rattlesnakes are affected by changes within their environment which are caused by the fire.  This past summer’s objectives, however, were to basically get my feet wet, get to know the areas that may serve as potential study sites, get to know the focal species, and attempt to understand how to work with state agencies (SPOILER ALERT => this last objective would prove to be the most difficult).  It took awhile to get permits and all other paper work in line for the project, but all-in-all the summer was a great success because I identified 2 potential study sites (and possibly 2 more), I learned a great deal about these wonderful little creatures, and with the help of 2 great technicians (Rex Everett and Mark Herr) we came up with a couple great side projects.

Timber Marked

Male Timber Rattlesnake post-data collection. Note the painted rattle which allows us to identify it as a previous capture if we happen to stumble upon him later in the day. For all rattlesnakes we recorded basic morphometrics, sex, reproductive status, and marked the individual with a PIT tag which will allow us to identify it if captured much further down the road.

To date, we have identified two great study sites (and possibly more).  The first is located in Forbes State Forest and will be a rather large burn (a little over 600 acres!).  We’ve identified at least three potential gestation sites in this area, and although we were not able to spend a great deal of time down in Forbes, we know through talking with state foresters that there is a healthy population of Timber Rattlesnakes in the immediate area.  The actual area was nicknamed the “Snake Pit” by the district forester.  Aside from being a beautiful landscape, it is also the highest elevation within the state!  The “Snake Pit” is scheduled to burn in 2016 via an aerial ignition burn (dropping fire from helicopters!), which will provide me with a full pre-burn year to collect data in 2015 (Fantastic!).  In addition to Forbes, we also have a smaller prescribed burn planned for Rothrock State Forest.  We have visited this area quite frequently throughout the summer and we’ve captured a handful of Timber Rattlesnakes within the area as well (including one individual that we’ve radio-tracked to a den site).  The odd thing about this area is that all of the rattlesnakes we’ve captured thus far… have all been males of various ages.  Where are the females?!?  The presence of 1 year old males, however, suggests that the females are hanging out somewhere near by but we have not found where….  But, it leads us to question why we did not find any gravid females hanging out on the fantastic rocky slopes within the area?  Was this just a bad year for gravid females? Could the females be down in the valleys hunting chipmunks and gathering the energy needed for future reproductive bouts?

Gestation Site Paired

On the left, rising out of the thick ocean of Mt. Laural is a beautiful rock slab bathed in sunlight. This is fantastic gestation site. The large cap rock atop of the rock slab provides cover for the gravid females and refuge from high temperatures during the mid-afternoon and low temperatures at night. On the right, another type of gestation site is the large rock fields strewn out among Pennsylvania’s mountain sides. These gestation sites may be 100 m long and very open. Although this provides good thermal habitat for longer periods each day, would snakes be detected by predators more in this largely open area?

Throughout the summer we located close to 50 Timber Rattlesnakes.  Although we did not find gravid rattlesnakes at some potential study sites, we found many gravid rattlesnakes at other sites.  Sometimes these gravid rattlesnakes were in small areas that were about 10 m X 10 m (top left picture).  These smaller areas had all the essential habitat characteristics for a gestation site: an open canopy, rocks to lay out on, and rocks to hide underneath.  Other times, gravid rattlesnakes were found in large rock fields (top right picture).  Obviously the thermal environment would differ between these gestation sites.  Sun light would hit the more open rock fields early in the morning and last till much later in the day as compared to the smaller gestation sites surrounded by towering trees.  This may translate into the gravid Timber Rattlesnakes being able to maintain a preferred, optimal body temperature for a longer period of time each day within the more open rock fields.  Maintaining this optimal body temperature for a longer period of time each day may translate into more energy available for developing offspring and shorter gestation periods.  However, these more open areas may provide an advantage to visual predators such as hawks.  So would it be more beneficial for a gravid Timber Rattlesnake to gestate within a large open rock field despite the potential increased risk of encountering a predator?  To answer this question, a Penn State undergrad, Mark Herr, and I are putting together a side project for next summer where we will measure the thermal properties and predation intensity of these different types of gestation sites.  Additionally, we will radio-track gravid females at each gestation site in order to determine body temperatures maintained by individuals, duration of time spent at gestation sites, and date when females birthed young.  This should be a fantastic study! This past summer we began collecting preliminary data at a few gestation sites (using biophysical models) and found that operative temperatures at smaller gestation sites averaged 6 degrees C less than operative temperatures at large rock fields.  Additionally, this was a cooler summer than years past and only the gravid females at large rock fields birthed young at those gestation sites.  Gravid rattlesnakes from smaller gestation sites remained gravid as they traveled back to their den sites.  Most of these individuals appeared to return to their dens gravid, which likely means bad things for those potential young (i.e., mortality).

Mark and Neonate

On the left, Penn State undergrad, Mark Herr, collects habitat data at a smaller gestation site. Note the biophysical model in the foreground next to the backpack. These models will measure the operative temperatures for Timber Rattlesnakes, which are basically the potential body temperature of an individual if it was not thermoregulating (i.e., if it were conforming to the environment). On the right, a neonate Timber Rattlesnake hiding under a birch leaf (… that is a small leaf). Only at large, open gestation sites that maintained warmer operative temperature did we find neonates this summer.

DSCF5529

Gravid females from smaller gestation sites returned to their dens still gravid.  This likely spells disaster for the potential young.  Can you find the Timber Rattlesnake at this den?

Next spring we are ready to hit the ground running as snakes begin to emerge from their den sites.  In addition to the project’s main objectives, we are also prepping for a few side projects.  In addition to the project described above, I am also trying to understand why Timber Rattlesnakes choose one potential gestation site over another.  I will also be surveying and monitoring vernal pools within burn sites to determine how amphibians are affected by prescribed burning.  Stay tuned as we continue this project.  In addition to Mark, I also have one of the best Timber Rattlesnake expert in the state assisting me with this project: Rex Everett.  Together Rex, Mark, and myself are determined to make this project a success.  Additionally, we will be taking on at least two more technicians for next summer and any other undergrad interested in reptile ecology, thermal biology, and conservation.  For more information feel free to contact me at cah62@psu.edu.

Me and Timber1

The fearless leader collecting data on a Timber Rattlesnake found crossing the road at Rothrock State Forest.

Rex and Ratsnake

Rex Everett, snake expert, with a large Rat Snake found adjacent to the planned burn area at Rothrock State Forest