A Day in the Life of a Wildlife Science Student
It’s 1 a.m. on a hot summer night in the Adirondacks back in 2010. While the rest of the human world sleeps, Paul Smith’s College freshman Josh Pierce and his research partner sit in silence on the muddy bank of a small pond, headlamps illuminating the notebooks on their laps.
A wood frog. You can tell by the almost duck-like quack. Pierce makes a note.
The sharp, banjo-like call of the green frog, another common amphibious resident of the Adirondacks. But where’s the mink frog? Paul Smith’s Center for Adirondack Biodiversity had labeled the small and slightly stinky frog a “species of concern” because of its limited range. That’s what Pierce and his research partner are looking — or more accurately, listening —for.
Finally, after several more ponds and several more nocturnal jam sessions, they hear it -- the double trop, trop, of the elusive mink frog. Pierce records the GPS coordinates of the pond, notes the other species present — YouTube has taught him to recognize 15 different calls — and groggily returns to his tent at 5 a.m., just as the sun is rising. Another day in the life of a working wildlife scientist.
Pierce is a senior now, ready to graduate with a degree in fisheries and wildlife sciences. That summer of midnight frog-spotting helped earned him credit as co-author on a paper about the natural history of mink frogs published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Herpetological Review. Before he graduates, Pierce will have a second co-authored paper on his resume, this time with Dan Kelting of Paul Smith’s Adirondack Watershed Institute (AWI).
“It’s unusual for an undergraduate to be published,” says Kelting, “but it’s not unusual at Paul Smith’s. One of the pillars of science is publication. It says to future employers and grad schools, ‘Not only was I a principal researcher on this project, but I was deeply involved in the analysis and interpretation of the data, and the writing of the report.’ In the scientific community, that proves you have the skills to succeed as a scientist.”
Every summer, Kelting and AWI hire 30 to 40 Paul Smith’s undergraduates to help prevent, monitor and actively fight against the spread of invasive aquatic species in Adirondack lakes. Aquatic enemy number one is Eurasian water milfoil, a fast-growing freshwater weed that crowds out native species to form huge masses of impassable growth. Milfoil infestations not only impact aquatic ecosystems, but ruin lakes for recreational boating and lower property values.
After his frog experience, Pierce worked the next summer on Kelting’s aquatic plant survey crew. There are more than 11,000 lakes in the six-million-acre Adirondack Park. Every day, Pierce and a partner would drive or hike out to another far-flung lake and paddle their canoes from end to end, identifying and cataloging all underwater plant life, particularly invasives like Eurasian milfoil. Kelting calls it a “dream job” for aspiring scientists who love the outdoors. Pierce agrees.
“Being outside on the water every day, exploring so many different lakes that we otherwise would never have seen, meeting tons of interesting people and learning so much about each region of the Adirondacks,” says Pierce. “It was a really fun way to do real scientific research.”
The Adirondacks is the College’s scientific home base, but the reach of our undergraduate research extends as far as the southern tip of Africa. That’s where Professor Curt Stager has conducted ten years of summer research trips with Paul Smith’s students in his paleoecology class. Stager and his students want to find out how continued global warming will affect rainfall in South Africa. The fear is that increased global temperatures will push the critical winter storms that feed the region out to sea, parching the landscape.
“Using the tools of paleoclimatology, we can look to the past to see if this warming cycle has happened before and how temperature affects where the rain falls,” Stager explains.
To do this, Stager and his students have traveled to remote African lakes, most recently Lake Verlorenvlei in the Western Cape region of South Africa. Paddling out to the middle of the shallow lake, they drilled a meter deep into the sediment on the lake floor. After taking cores from various parts of the lake, Stager and his students flew the sediment-filled pipes back to the Paul Smith’s labs for analysis. All of the research is funded by National Science Foundation grants.
“The students and I analyze the microscopic fossils and chemistry of the sediment itself,” Stager says. “In the lab, we split open the core pipe like a sausage and take samples centimeter by centimeter, layer by layer.”
“To have such a hands-on experience with climate science — I never had anything like that until graduate school,” Stager continues. “But it’s one of the things that’s typical of this college. Our research here is world-class and we’re well-respected among our peers, but the biggest difference is that we directly involve our students. And it’s not just window dressing; they’re embedded right in the project.”
Stager, who recently published Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth, is excited about another undergraduate research project closer to home. While taking core samples from Adirondack lakes, students in his paleoecology course asked if it’s possible to isolate and analyze DNA in the sediment. “I don’t know,” Stager replied. “But gosh, we should look.”
“Sure enough, this has proven to be a revolution in the field, going on right now in the scientific community,” Stager says. “In collaboration with Professor Lee Ann Sporn, we have found DNA evidence of fish species going back many centuries into the past. That’s relevant because there are huge unanswered questions here in the Adirondacks about what used to live in the lakes.”
Yellow perch, for example, has been labeled an invasive species by fish and game authorities, because the fish is never thought to have lived in the region before the nineteenth century.
“There are controversial efforts to poison entire lakes to get rid of the perch, but we found DNA evidence that points to 2,000 years of yellow perch living in the Adirondacks,” Stager says. “That has practical implications for how we manage fish here in the Park. And Paul Smith’s students are playing an active role in that discovery.”