From Catching Frogs to Making Laws:
How University of South Carolina Students are Getting Involved in Wildlife Research
by Melissa Groleau, M.S.
Department of Biological Sciences
University of South Carolina
Where does that snake live? What does that salamander eat? When does that bird nest? Why is that fish striped? Science begins with curiosity; a question.
Are these populations healthy? That is the question wildlife managers ask. What is causing their decline? Why are they getting overpopulated? What is happening to their prey or predators? How can we help?
These questions are answered by science, the systematic collection of data that can shed light on something we don’t quite understand yet. Wildlife studies do not have to be especially complicated (although scientists do get excited about solving complicated problems). They can be as simple as deploying trail cameras and interpreting the data created from the images. Audio recordings near wetlands to monitor amphibians, surveying birds you hear calling, and counting tracks of mammals are all techniques frequently used in wildlife research.
Students at the University of South Carolina (UofSC or USC) are working on projects using trail cameras to monitor mammal populations all over the world!
These students went from catching frogs by their house as kids to learning how to design an experiment, collect data, properly complete field work, use software to make maps and analyze data, and interpret their results in a real world context.
“I always knew biology was where I belonged,” says Lillian Self, a freshman Biology major at USC. “I really like studying wildlife because there is always something that will surprise you. Looking through the camera trap photos I have seen some crazy, funny, and just awesome things come across the screen. There never really is a boring day in the lab!” she says.
You don’t have to be dead set on biology to wind up doing wildlife research. Ethan Shealy, a junior Biology major at USC, says. “I was actually more interested in chemistry, more specifically in the chemical reactions associated with life, so I began as a biochemistry major.” Ethan grew up in the low-country of South Carolina where he spent hours on end outdoors; going fishing, hunting, and to summer camps at Hobcaw Barony and Brookgreen Gardens. “I was always fascinated with animals and contemplated working with them since I was young; however, I mostly pictured fun, animal-related work to be working at a zoo or as a veterinarian. I didn’t really get personally excited about wildlife research until I was exposed to it here at school. Once I got to USC and began to learn more, I realized that research was a way to not only interact with the wildlife in their natural ecological space, but also be able to learn about and gain a deeper understanding of the organisms,” he says.
Biology is not all cells and medicine! A wildlife specialist, naturalist, and ecologist are all obtainable jobs if you love nature and want to learn about it. “I am extremely dedicated to this research not only because it is something that interests me, but because hopefully one day it will be my job,” Lillian says. Lillian was raised surrounded by animals on her family’s farm where she spent many days planting and harvesting flowers and vegetables, riding horses, and enjoying nature by going hiking or just reading a book outside. She hopes to build her research project during her time at USC by incorporating a genetic aspect and more field work. “I loved doing fieldwork because we got to go outside and see where all of these images we have been working on actually came from!”
The studies these USC students are working on and many other similar studies inform policies, regulations and management plans as to how to best keep our ecosystems functioning and our environment protected. The regulations set by South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and similar agencies all originate from studies that monitor wildlife population movements, breeding success, population abundance and other indicators of population health. Biologists and wildlife specialists can determine if the population is stable, increasing or deceasing and investigate what is causing any changes. Their findings then provide a basis for our management strategies.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed on South Carolina Wild are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect official policies, positions, or endorsements of activity or products by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.