For more than a decade, volunteers from around the country have been documenting frog and toad populations as part of the North American Amphibian Monitoring Program (NAAMP) facilitated by the U. S. Geological Survey (USGS). Collectively, they’ve amassed a wealth of data that’s helping researchers to better understand the lives of amphibians and their habitats.
Using data from NAAMP as the foundation of their work, Assistant Professor of Biology Bradley Cosentino and students taking his course, “Conservation Biology,” recently conducted a research project focused on answering important questions about how ecological disturbances affect amphibian diversity in the eastern United States. The project contributed to a broader research effort conducted by nine other colleges and universities.
Following six weeks of data collection and analysis, Cosentino and Stephen Mugel ’13, who is taking “Conservation Biology,” presented the findings from the class project during a workshop at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Barbara, Calif.
“This was a great opportunity for HWS students to be part of a large scale highly collaborative science project involving other schools,” Cosentino says. “At the workshop, Stephen did an excellent job representing the Colleges and presenting the analysis.”
The event in Santa Barbara gave research contributors the chance to come together to present and combine their data, as well as discuss some of the initial findings. The original data collected for NAAMP was obtained by citizen scientists from thousands of locations across the United States by using a survey technique that helps to identify the sounds made by frogs and toads at certain locations out in the field.
Cosentino, whose research addresses impacts of land use on wildlife, says one of the primary objectives of the research project was to help identify critical factors that are threatening amphibian populations in the northeastern United States.
Globally there is a well-documented decline in amphibian species that’s due to factors such as habitat loss and habitat fragmentation, with fragmentation occurring when habitats become isolated, in turn, likely reducing movement between populations. Cosentino says understanding the populations of frogs and toads in relation to the configuration of the habitat, surrounding land use, and available resources have important scientific and practical implications that not only are of interest to scientists, but also industry professionals such as natural resource managers.
For the project itself, Cosentino also says collaborative research efforts of this caliber often take place at the graduate level, so having the experience as an undergraduate is a tremendous opportunity.
Mugel, who presented his class’s findings and joined with contributors from other schools on combining the data, says both the project at HWS and attending the workshop were important collaborative experiences. He says his time spent in the science labs at the Colleges and working on his senior Honors project helped prepare him for the efforts and his presentation.
“I really enjoyed seeing how people came together for this project,” Mugel says. “Working together, we had a better idea of where we wanted to take the project and how we wanted to bring all this data together.”
One of the primary benefits of students participating in the project is that they gain firsthand experience working with and analyzing data, which is critical in the field of biology and related professions, Cosentino says.
“The students worked with very large data sets, which allowed them to ask their own research questions,” Cosentino says. “One thing we strive for in the Biology Department is to give students hands-on experience doing science.”
Cosentino says other practical applications include experience with ArcGIS software, data management, and using statistical analysis to answer questions. All of which, he says are particularly relevant across multiple disciplines.
In moving forward, Cosentino says the research may serve to identify and address new avenues of scientific inquiry regarding amphibian populations and habitat. He says eventually the research will be published in a scholarly journal focused on conservation biology.
Also extending the coursework of “Conservation Biology” to include firsthand research in the field, students from Cosentino’s class recently conducted a local survey of amphibians at Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge. The Post-Standard reported on their research efforts in an article published April 24, 2013.