During the second week of April, a group of Wittenberg biology students, including me, joined Dr. Richard Phillips and, for a short time, Dr. Margaret Goodman, both Wittenberg biology professors, on a five-day weekend of adventure to learning about field ecology.
The group included: Alivia Danhoff ’17 (Clyde, Ohio), Tucker Daniel ‘16 (Columbia City, Ind.), Emily Lourwood ’17 (Lansing, Ill.), Daniel Miller ’16 (Minonk, Ill.), Megan Rude ’17 (Springfield, Ohio), Katelyn Shanor ‘17 (Roswell, N.M.), and me (Cumberland Center, Maine). Brittany Garcia ‘16 (Lindenhurst, Ill.) and Jeremy Barkley ’17 (Harmony, Pa.) joined the group as student mentors who went on the trip last year. We were all students in Dr. Phillips’ Biology 346 Ecology class, interested in this optional field study. The goals of the trip were to learn in the field and acquire new field techniques while seeing the concepts we’ve studied in class applied in various ecosystems. We specifically investigated the biodiversity of Lafayette County, Miss.
This area is very special because we were exploring Dr. Phillips’ family’s land, a retired farm that is more than 600 acres of wild, hardwood forest, open fields and pine plantation. It is unique in that it contains a variety of habitats, filled with a range of species from different taxa. Personally, I had never traveled to this part of the country, so it was really interesting to be able to apply the concepts we were studying in class to another state – one that differs greatly from Ohio.
The general format of the field study was that we would hike and explore an area of land with Dr. Phillips, capturing animals along the way that we would then bring back to the cabin to study. Our studies focused on reptiles and amphibians, so we were catching a variety of snakes, turtles, skinks, salamanders, frogs and toads. After our initial data collections in the field, we would then bring the animals back to the cabin and collect information about their weight, size and physical characteristics, and also identify the species.
Dr. Phillips maintains a database of all the animals that the ecology classes have captured on these trips, so he is able to compare how healthy the populations are from year to year. With some of the smaller animals, additional data collection was conducted in the form of fungal swabbing, tail clippings and small blood samples. All of the data collection was done in a humane way that caused as little stress to the animal as possible. This data can then be brought back to Wittenberg for use in other studies.
What was particularly interesting about our snake research was that we participated in mark-recapture studies of these organisms, scanning for a microchip and injecting a “pit tag” I.D. just under the skin if one was not found. This process is comparable to a vet inserting a microchip in your dog for identification purposes. A few snakes we found were recaptures, meaning a previous class had already pit-tagged it. This allowed us to look up the snake’s pit-tag number in Dr. Phillips’ database and make comparisons between the data we collected that day and what was seen before, demonstrating to us how the animal was growing or how old it might be. This was exciting for us because it emphasized that the hard work of chasing down a snake and doing the data collection is definitely worth it.
After completing our data collection and grabbing some lunch, we would return to the field to release the animals we caught, while also catching any new ones we found along the way. This process was repeated throughout the three days of fieldwork. One student tracked all of our hiking on his GPS device and determined that we did a marathon’s worth of hiking throughout the weekend. We joked that we were going to instantly be in great shape when we got back to Wittenberg.
For many of us on the trip, being outdoors is one of our favorite things to do, so exploring nature in the beautiful Mississippi weather, catching animals and then bringing them home made it feel like a vacation from school. I never felt like it was a class, even though there was never a second that I wasn’t learning. We even enjoyed the opportunity to memorize the call of the whippoorwill, a bird that loved to stoop on our bunkhouse and sing us a lullaby every night.
Although we learned a lot about biodiversity, the different species in this area of the country, field techniques and other academic lessons, some of the biggest lessons we learned were about ourselves and each other. Dr. Phillips brings a lot of humor to his classes, and that is part of what makes him a great professor, but he also respects that for a lot of people, handling large snakes or picking up little lizards is often out of their comfort zones. Throughout the duration of this trip, one of the biggest lessons he taught us was how to expand the boundaries of our comfort zones and become open to new experiences. He accomplished this through hands-on learning with us. He was always there to lend a hand when needed, answer questions or demonstrate a proper technique, but for the most part, the data analysis and collection was done solely by the students, which was an important part of the trip.
I learned so much from Dr. Phillips but also from the other students. Brittany and Jeremy were our student mentors, who were there to help demonstrate techniques and help out, but everyone in our group had something to offer, whether it was knowledge about a subject or simply a helping hand. Ultimately, I think that alone was my favorite part of the trip. Don’t get me wrong. I loved every second of animal interaction and ecology involved, but sharing this experience with my peers was what made it such an amazing weekend for me. Other than my roommate, Katie, and our friend, Megan, I really didn’t know anyone else on the trip very well, even though we’d been in the same class all semester. All of us come from different parts of the country and have different interests within biology, but each of us had something unique to add. I could have successfully learned all of the fieldwork and ecological concepts regardless of who was on the trip, but what makes this field experience special is how it brought all of us together.
For the long run, this trip offered experiences that will help each of us differently in our future careers. Personally, my goal is to become a zookeeper, so all of the animal handling was very beneficial in preparing me for such a career. For others, the mark-recapture techniques will help them in a wildlife management setting. It was a unique field experience that all of us will be able to have on our resumes, hopefully helping us to find jobs after our time at Witt. But, on a more personal note, it is the relationships and memories that were made during this adventure that will stay with me for a lifetime.
For our final night in Mississippi, Dr. Phillips took us to a catfish restaurant in Oxford, where most of us had no idea what any of the food was. It was a perfect evening to end the trip as we tried new foods, talked and laughed about inside jokes from our time in Mississippi, and even took part in the restaurant’s tradition of shooting toothpicks into the ceiling. This led to even more laughter as many of us had numerous pathetic attempts before successfully hitting our target. I would definitely say that this was one of the most unforgettable and beneficial experiences that both Dr. Phillips and Wittenberg have offered me.