Grant Assists in Capturing Data on the Next Generation of Mole Salamanders

Posted: August 27, 2014 at 5:00 am, Last Updated: August 27, 2014 at 7:26 am

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By Carrie Drummond

Integrative Studies major Melissa (Mimi) Fuerst spent her summer working at the pool—a vernal pool near Warrenton, Va., that is. Thanks to a second grant from George Mason University’s Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities, and Research (OSCAR), Fuerst has been able to continue her research on mole salamanders on the Piedmont.

Melissa Fuerst

Melissa Fuerst

Under the guidance of New Century College professor Tom Wood, Fuerst secured two OSCAR grants to install equipment now in use at a vernal pool where hundreds of salamanders hatch each spring. The absence of fish make vernal pools attractive for amphibian reproduction. The pool was constructed in 2011, and in the year following its construction, Wood noted that, based on egg mass counts, more than 1,300 salamanders and frogs used the pool.

Seeing the pool for the first time as part of her freshman NCLC 103 Human Creativity: Science and Art course in spring 2013, Fuerst became interested in the species she observed at the pool and wanted to learn more about the mole salamanders. She applied for and was awarded OSCAR funding during the 2013-14 academic year, and this summer was able to compile a variety of data regarding the salamanders. The equipment enables Fuerst to monitor and observe the salamanders that visit the vernal pool to lay their eggs. She then observes the next generation of salamanders as they hatch and mature.

One component of Fuerst’s data collection includes the humane capture of salamanders, so she can transfer each individual to a petri dish for more thorough observation under a microscope. Fuerst notes the salamander’s size and physical appearance and records the soil, air and water temperatures at the time of capture. Following observation, Fuerst releases each salamander back to the pool. Using this information, Fuerst can plot the salamanders’ growth rates over the summer and predict when they will migrate out of the pool. This detailed data collection creates a rich picture of life at the vernal pool.

Salamanders from vernal pool. Photo courtesy Office of Student Scholarship Creative Activities and Research.

Salamanders from vernal pool. Photo courtesy of Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities, and Research.

Based on current observations, Fuerst notes that this year’s salamander hatchlings appear to be one or two weeks slower to develop as compared with those she observed last summer. “This could be due to the cold winter we had or the temperature this summer,” she says. “It’s been cooler this year, and that’s another point of comparison. I can look at their development based on data for this summer and compare that with last summer.”

When asked what led to her interest in salamanders, Fuerst says, “The southeastern United States has the greatest biodiversity of salamanders in the entire world. Their habitat is being destroyed at an alarming rate. This has a lot to do with farming, construction and filling in pools and wetlands especially in Northern Virginia. Salamanders are an indicator species, so they tell you a lot about the health of an environment.”

Fuerst plans to study salamanders in the future, either as a researcher or an educator. She says, “I am also interested in teaching—either formally or informally—in the future. I hope to always work with amphibians. That would be fun!”

Write to Colleen Kearney Rich at ckearney@gmu.edu

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