Where the Wild Things Are:  Biology Faculty and Students Survey Amphibians and Reptiles in Southwest Kansas

Students conducting field researchIn July 2011, Fort Hays State University biologists, Drs. William Stark '90 and Robert Channell '90, '92, secured a $350,000 grant funded by the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. As lead investigators, they began a two year research project to survey reptile and amphibian habitat in Southwest Kansas. After months of planning and preparing, two graduate students and six undergraduate students, led by Stark, spent their summer in southwest Kansas collecting data that will eventually help State wildlife conservationists and energy developers plan more efficiently and effectively. Data will be used to determine where development may proceed while having the least impact on species of reptiles and amphibians in southwest Kansas. 

Stark emphasized that this survey is extensive and is on a scale “not attempted in many places and maybe no place in the United States.” Eight landowners with largely undeveloped land ranging from 5,000 to 20,000 acres each allowed the FHSU team to set up miles of transects which were deployed in order to collect, count, tag and release the organisms being surveyed. It took a team of Stark and 12 students three weeks to deploy all of the necessary gear in order to begin the data collection. 

Ultimately, the data that is collected in the field will help the Department of Wildlife, Parks, and Tourism develop maps showing where animals would be most dramatically impacted by energy development projects, such as gas, oil and wind. This data will also help those Students conducting field researchdevelopers avoid areas that would negatively impact amphibian and reptile habitat. This project has a unique approach because the surveying is done ahead of time, and scientific models are being developed from the field data that can then be applied elsewhere by taking a small sample and entering the data into the model which will calculate the risk to the species in an area. Channell stated, “These types of techniques have been done before, but not with this kind of forethought, before there is an impact on a species.”  

Beyond the scientific and environmental impact of the study, there is an added benefit to the student participants. The student research assistants participate in all aspects of the project, observing the early planning stages and then applying research techniques in the field during data collection. The hands-on learning experience that the students gain from being active partners in this process is invaluable, developing the applied knowledge and skills necessary for career field biologists.

Students were selected to participate in the research based on their knowledge of reptiles and amphibians which they had gained from academic courses completed in prior semesters. In future courses, students will utilize the data to apply modeling techniques to account for climate change and other variables such as environmental use changes. Preliminary findings may be presented by students as early as this fall at the annual Kansas Herpetological Society meeting. The first season of surveying concluded on Aug. 16. The team will return next summer for the final season of data collection.