So this week, I (Cory) get to write a blog. Many of you have asked or wondered “Why Texas?” or “What are you studying?” Well, this blog should clear it all up.
It all began around Thanksgiving of last year. In my last year of my Master’s degree at Marshall University, I started contacting professors and searching online for schools and labs that had research in my area of interest: herpetology. Herpetology is the study of amphibians and reptiles. This includes snakes, lizards, turtles, frogs, toads and salamanders. This area of science is not very large, which made finding labs hard. Finding those with openings for PhD’s or funding were even harder. By the beginning of November, my potential institutions had been narrowed down to two: Virginia Tech and Texas State. I was really hoping to get in with Virginia Tech, to be closer to family and Beth, if she was unable to follow me with a residency. Unfortunately, they had not received any funding and would not know if they could take on a PhD student until early Spring. By then, registration would be over. It was over Thanksgiving break, while in Georgia seeing family, that I heard back from Texas State. If I was still interested, they wanted an interview. After talking it over with family and Beth (who at that time was just my girlfriend), I went forward with the interview. I had a Skype interview with the students in the lab the second week of December and an interview with my soon-to-be Texas advisor and her collaborator in Florida the following week. Within an hour after the interview, I was called back and offered the position. I again consulted family and Beth, accepted the position, and furiously filled out paperwork.
Flash-forward 6 months and now I am newly married and leaving my spouse for Texas.
So what exactly am I doing down here? I am studying to obtain my PhD in Aquatic Resources. That’s just a really fancy name for Biology, with a few focused classes in aquatic conservation and management. Apparently no two universities in the state of Texas can have the same degree, so they called it Aquatic Resources and added a few classes. My focus is still in herpetology, but my advisor, Dr. Caitlin Gabor, studies animal behavior, specifically mating tactics in fish and the stress response in both fish and amphibians.
I came to Texas State under a collaborative grant between my advisor and the US Geological Survey, specifically Dr. Susan Walls of the Southeast Amphibian and Reptile Monitoring Initiative (ARMI) out of Gainesville, Florida. Because of the collaborative effort, I am able to combine my passion for amphibians and the stress-response behavior my advisor is studying. My current research will be examining how amphibians respond to stress, and if we can predict declining populations by doing so. My research will focus on a particular species of frog called the Ornate Chorus Frog (Pseudacris ornata), which ranges throughout the coastal plain from Louisiana to Florida and north as far as North Carolina. This particular species is very abundant and is not protected in any way, but populations in peninsular Florida have been declining, whereas populations in the panhandle have been stable. My research will use a relatively new, non-invasive technique (developed by my advisor) to sample stress hormones in different populations and compare them. You see, before, researchers would have to sacrifice small organisms, like frogs and salamanders, in order to collect hormones, because they are so small. Now, we can place them in small beakers with a little bit of water, and the hormones leech out through their semi-permeable skin and are also excreted through urine. This is fantastic for all species, but especially those that are already threatened or endangered. Now, how organisms respond to an acute (short) stressful event can tell us a lot about how healthy, in terms of physiology, that individual is. If multiple individuals are tested in a single population, those results can be extrapolated to the entire population. If we sample at multiple populations, we can compare their responses and see if populations differ. If they differ, we can go back and try to figure out what some of the causes are for those differences. My research will compare populations of the Ornate Chorus frog in the panhandle, where they are stable, to populations in the peninsula, where they have been declining. I will examine the stress response using the tadpoles, which are more vulnerable to changes in the environment. This will help us, first, determine if there is a difference between populations, and from there we can search for potential factors causing them to decline. We can use that model to predict the outcome for other populations, other species of frogs and maybe even salamanders!
So, in just a few short weeks (still don’t know exactly when), I will be headed to Florida to start my collecting! This research is something I may continue next year, but it is also research I can use as a starting point for many other research directions and hypotheses.
My PhD here should take 4 years to complete. So, Lord willing, Beth will be able to start her residency here this summer and we can both work really hard and finish around the same time. That’s the plan, and I’m sure there will be many more updates on my research to come, so check back! Until then, happy herping! 🙂
Adult Ornate Chorus frogs (downloaded from the internet)