Summer undergraduate research: Digging for clues to save declining bird populations
The Eastern Shore of Virginia is a critical pit stop for migratory shorebirds making the long trek from South America and Central America to the Arctic. Birds stop to refuel for two-to-three weeks on small mussels and clams found in the sand and surf before continuing the journey northward.
But migratory shorebird populations are declining, and scientists are working hard to understand why. For several years, Virginia Tech scientists have studied the red knot, a robin-sized bird that stops off at the Eastern Shore.
Information about other bird species, such as piping plovers, dunlins, laughing gulls, and royal terns, is also needed. That’s where Emily Ronis of Herndon, Va., a junior majoring in wildlife science in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, comes in.
This summer, as part of the Fralin Life Science Institute’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship program, Ronis spent two weeks surveying the chain of barrier islands that make up the Eastern Shore, identifying bird species and collecting samples of sand and peat. Her objective is to better understand the behaviors of the bird species and, most importantly, what’s on their dinner plates.
To do so, Ronis collected sand and peat samples and brought them back to the Cheatham Hall laboratory of Sarah Karpanty, an associate professor of fish and wildlife conservation and Ronis’ fellowship mentor. Ronis will spend the rest of the summer measuring and counting clams and mussels and comparing her results with food samples from previous years to identify any trends.
"By looking at the samples, I can see if there continues to be a sufficient food source for these birds," Ronis said. "In the context of the bigger picture of shorebird decline, it's really important that researchers know where critical habitat is for the birds, so that efforts can be made to conserve those places."
Knowing whether the birds have enough food at the stopovers is important, Karpanty said.
"The food in Virginia is mostly small clams and mussels, and that’s very much affected by water temperature and storms, which are likely being affected by climate change," she said. "We want to know how food resources are changing based on those factors related to climate."
While at the Eastern Shore, Ronis stayed at the University of Virginia’s Anheuser-Busch Coastal Research Center, and commuted to work by boat. She said the experience helped her realize that she loves field work.
"I think the best part of [the program] is that it gives students who are earlier in their careers a chance to get exposed to field work and lab work and analyses, and really decide whether this is the type of work they enjoy," Karpanty said. “Emily may or may not go on to do shorebird work, but it will give her a sense of being exposed to research. She got to work not only with me in the field and lab, but also with my co-investigators Dr. Jim Fraser and Dr. Dan Catlin, who are also faculty in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation. Likewise, she got to meet some of the people on the ground, such as the natural resource managers with The Nature Conservancy, which is an eye-opening experience because their work is to implement our research on the ground.”
During the summer of 2013, more than 250 students are taking part in undergraduate research experiences through more than a dozen programs on campus. The Office of Undergraduate Research is coordinating workshops and activities for the programs' participants through the summer. Students will present their work at the Virginia Tech Summer Undergraduate Research Symposium on Wednesday, July 31.