Student Research Presented in Richmond

A UVa-Wise student scientist recently presented her research on the Eastern Hellbender after months of collecting water samples in local creeks and riverbeds.

And no, the hellbender isn’t a dragon from Harry Potter.

On Monday, January 26, UVa-Wise biology student Ashlee Taylor proudly welcomed the moment when she could inform state legislators about the conservation of this interesting species in Richmond.

Ashlee Taylor, UVa-Wise Senior Photo: Contributed photo | Wally Smith, Katie Dunn
Ashlee Taylor, UVa-Wise Senior Photo: Contributed photo | Wally Smith, Katie Dunn

“With these results, I hope to improve human-hellbender interactions, increase the public’s awareness of the hellbender, improve water quality, and improve the conservation of the hellbender,” Taylor said of her work on the salamanders. “I began research on the Eastern hellbender, a large, two foot long, fully-aquatic salamander in my fall 2014 Conservation Biology class taught by Dr. Wally Smith.”

“During the study, we sampled water quality, including temperature, conductivity, dissolved oxygen, pH, width, depth, etc., at approximately 26 sites, as well as collecting environmental DNA during the hellbender’s mating season,” Taylor said. “The eDNA was used as a rough estimate as to where hellbenders may be located, and the analysis was used to confirm hellbender locality. Using these two aspects together, we received one positive eDNA result from a local river, as well as two pictures with coordinates to confirm hellbender localities north of the Clinch River.”

The intricate process of conducting water samples was only half of the work needed to fully educate and spread awareness about the Eastern hellbender. Ashlee stressed the importance of raising public awareness to the state legislatures at the Virginia Academy of Science Research Showcase.

“We had approximately 100 people take our survey that we created to determine public attitudes towards the hellbender,” Taylor said.  The two-year process consisting of eDNA analysis, water quality sampling, citizen science, educational initiatives, and rock-flipping to locate hellbenders progressively benefited the region’s awareness on the conservation of these salamanders. Taylor and Dr. Smith were the first in this region to conduct research on the Eastern hellbender.

Taylor worked with Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute while conducting her research. Photo: Contributed Photo | Wally Smith, Katie Dunn
Taylor worked with Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute while conducting her research.
Photo: Contributed Photo | Wally Smith, Katie Dunn

This experience has led Taylor to encourage other students who share similar interests to talk to their advisor about undergraduate research. Taylor’s Fellowship in the Natural Sciences (FINS) undergraduate research enabled her to work with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, and to collaborate with state herpetologists.

“My FINS job has been a great job,” Taylor said. “I enjoyed the field components of it and being able to go out into the woods for water sampling. I would recommend potential undergraduate researchers to find a field he or she likes and contact a professor as soon as possible. Once a topic and advisor is chosen, the student has to apply with a proposal for research funding, send in a resume, and have letters of recommendation.”

For students and faculty who are interested in learning more about Taylor’s research, she will be presenting her findings on Wednesday, Jan. 27 at 1 p.m. in the Science Center lecture hall, Room 122.

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