VA Press: Biology Teacher Studies Salamanders
This is a Press Information page entitled VA Press: Biology Teacher Studies Salamanders within the Press / News Items section of Caudata.org --- HERALD COURIER (Bristol, Virginia) 08 July 08 Biology Teacher Studies Salamanders (Timothy Cama) Whitetop, Va.: It was so cold on Whitetop Mountain last Tuesday that ...
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Our Roving Correspondent
VA Press: Biology Teacher Studies Salamanders
HERALD COURIER (Bristol, Virginia) 08 July 08 Biology Teacher Studies Salamanders (Timothy Cama)
Whitetop, Va.: It was so cold on Whitetop Mountain last Tuesday that those gathered for a salamander hunt could see their breath.
Kevin Hamed, an assistant biology professor at Virginia Highlands Community College in Abingdon, estimated that the temperature was in the low 40s. It was far warmer the last time Hamed’s Biology 101 students went to Whitetop to assist him in his study of salamander populations near Whitetop Creek, which flows down the mountain.
Nearly 20 students came prepared with jackets or sweatshirts, but a few only wore shorts and light shirts.
“Go!” yelled Hamed, and students repeated the command, making sure everyone got the message down the 250 feet of measuring tape he placed in through the woods.
Students searched under leaves, rotting logs, rocks and even in soil to find salamanders, put them in plastic bags and record their location relative to the creek. The occasional scream or cheer meant that one more of the tiny amphibians had been found.
Throughout the next eight years or so, Hamed will lead scores, probably hundreds, of students on such trips both to Whitetop and to the South Holston Weir Dam on the South Fork of the Holston River in Tennessee. The study is in its second year, and Hamed works on the project from spring until early fall.
With help from VHCC students, along with students from John Battle and Abingdon high schools in Washington County, Va., and East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tenn., Hamed hopes to track not just the numbers of salamanders, but also their locations, species and sizes.
Hamed also tracks the frequency of ranavirus, a fatal virus that can spread across amphibians such as frogs, toads and salamanders. He takes a tail sample from each salamander to be sent to the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Tenn., for testing.
“You have to turn it over,” Hamed said, overturning a rotting log, which then started to roll down the steep incline of the forest. He warned students before they began searching that they shouldn’t overturn anything they couldn’t catch.
“Do as I say, not as I do,” Hamed responded to laughing onlookers.
Hamed rigorously controls his study. Each day’s search, which studies a different altitude – 5,000 feet above sea level on Tuesday – must add up to eight man hours. For a class of 18 students, that meant students had to search for 26 minutes.
Students could only search within 250 feet of the creek, and within 5 feet of the measuring tape.
Hamed is continuing the research of James Organ, a biologist who tracked salamander populations on Whitetop in the 1950s, 1970s and 1990s.
Organ, now retired, lives in southern Virginia, and has guided Hamed through much of the work he has done so far.
“I’m very honored to follow in Dr. Organ’s footsteps,” he said.
By comparing his data with the data sets from Organ’s studies, Hamed hopes to track changes in salamander populations over the decades. Pollution, disease, threats from other species and a number of other factors could play into population changes, but Hamed suspects that climate change may be the biggest factor.
For his use of GPS technology, dataloggers, tracking tags and other equipment in the study, Hamed won the Innovative Use of Technology Award earlier this year at the Virginia Community College System’s New Horizon Conference.
Hamed uses GPS to track altitudes and habitat locations, dataloggers to track habitat temperatures and sometimes tags salamanders to track their movement. He enters all the data into computer programs, which he plans to use to track trends and changes.
“They were far more abundant last time,” said Ryan Ward, an environmental science major from Abingdon. Hamed attributed the slim numbers, in comparison with their last trip at a lower altitude, to the cold temperature and sparse tree cover.
Ward, along with liberal arts major Ricky Powers of Meadowview, found four salamanders Tuesday, while the class picked up a total of 21.
Hamed hopes that in the decades to follow, he or a successor might be able to continue the study and biologists can use the results to track long-term trends in salamanders.
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