Leaping lemurs and hidden hellbenders: Class of 2020 graduates get up close to wildlife
Waking up in a remote camp in northern Madagascar, Giovanni Walters had to make a decision every day.
“I went to Madagascar with two doctoral students who were working on separate research projects,” explained Walters, a senior wildlife conservation major in the College of Natural Resources and Environment. “Each day I’d have to choose whether I’d follow the lemur group to monitor their behavior throughout the day, or do transects through the forest, which meant walking in a straight line and identifying all of the species I saw to make population estimates.”
The experiences of Walters and fellow wildlife conservation senior Margot Breiner — both members of the fall 2020 graduating class — reflect a central goal of the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, which aims to provide students with hands-on experiences in conservation that go far beyond the classroom.
From a vintner’s craft to hunting hellbenders
For Breiner, choosing to study wildlife conservation meant walking away from a different passion: she left a burgeoning career in the Virginia wine industry to study at Virginia Tech.
“While working at a family winery, I got involved in the Virginia Master Naturalist Program,” explained Breiner, who is from Alexandria, Virginia. “That experience really opened my eyes to the idea that studying wildlife was my passion.”
As a student, Breiner gained valuable experience in Professor William Hopkins’ Wildlife Ecotoxicology and Physiological Ecology Lab. There, she traded the chemistry of wine for the chemistry of water to support the lab’s research on hellbenders, a large salamander species.
“In fall 2019, I started analyzing water chemistry on samples that the research team brought back to the lab, along with some data entry work and other tasks for the team,” Breiner explained. “I was also really lucky to go out into the field a few times to see the team work with hellbenders in person, which was an incredible experience.”
With the onset of COVID-19 limiting fieldwork opportunities for undergraduate researchers, Breiner found a way to continue studying hellbenders. Working with a doctoral student, she is helping to extrapolate data about the species from video footage of hellbenders in their natural environments.
“The lab has installed artificial nest boxes in streams,” she explained. “Hellbenders nest in these boxes, and the lab was able to use cameras to film their behaviors. The males of the species stay with the eggs after fertilization, and we’re documenting some interesting parental care behaviors that haven’t been seen before.”
Breiner’s dedication hasn’t gone unnoticed: she was recently selected as the College of Natural Resources and Environment’s recipient of the Phi Kappa Phi Medallion Award, awarded to the top graduating senior in each college at Virginia Tech.
“Margot is a mature, insightful, and collaborative member of our research team,” Hopkins said. “It’s abundantly clear that she wants her contributions to matter, and she has a bright future ahead of her in conservation.”
Looking forward, Breiner is interested in learning more about how environmental changes impact wildlife.
“I joined the Hopkins’ lab because I was interested in the research they have done on ecotoxicology and with hellbenders,” she said. “I’m interested in how anthropogenic factors affect wildlife physiology and behavior, as well as finding solutions to these problems.”
Breiner aims to gain additional experience as a field technician in the spring before applying to graduate school.
Experiencing the world while making a difference
Growing up on a family farm in Bath County, Virginia, Giovanni Walters spent a lot of time outdoors.
“I’ve been really passionate about being outside and in nature all of my life,” he explained. “Looking ahead, I want to have a job where I’ll be outside and traveling, and wildlife conservation definitely has a lot of opportunities to travel and be outside for most of the job.”
Walters got to experience the extremes of the field in Madagascar, where he supported two research projects, one studying the impacts of climate change on the golden crowned sifaka (a species of lemur) and another making populations estimates for vertebrates on the African island.
“It was a great experience,” he said. “I was camping most of the time, eating rice and beans and really roughing it. I got to see a lot of amazing wildlife and interact with the local community, and I really felt that I was making a difference.”
More recently, Walters conducted field research in New Mexico this past summer, working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to survey the endangered New Mexico meadow jumping mouse, the southern willow flycatcher, and the yellow-billed cuckoo, while also working to improve habitat conditions for rare animals. He admitted that field work in the time of COVID presented new challenges.
“It was pretty rough. We had to get assigned our own vehicles, we couldn’t share dorms, and we had to stay 6 feet apart in the field,” he said. “There are already a lot of physical demands, from the heat to the biting insects, and to do all of that in a mask while trying to stay at a distance was extra difficult.”
Professor Sarah Karpanty says that Walters’ experiences show the range of opportunities available to undergraduate students studying wildlife conservation.
“Giovanni’s ability to make impacts both locally and globally are exemplary of what we hope our students can achieve during their time at Virginia Tech,” she said. “From working with Malagasy guides to advance conservation actions benefiting lemurs and people, to serving as a teaching assistant to other undergraduates in our department’s field techniques course, Giovanni has already contributed a great deal to the field, and we feel lucky to have worked with him.”
Looking ahead, Walters is considering applying for the Peace Corps. He hopes to continue making a difference by working in wildlife conservation overseas.
Written by David Fleming