URI student sees her future in frogs and salamanders

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Cranston resident studies forest cover around amphibian breeding ponds

KINGSTON, R.I. – January 5, 2015 – Kerndja Bien-Aime is hooked on amphibians. The University of Rhode Island senior said she has always wanted to work with animals in some capacity, but it wasn’t until she met URI Assistant Professor Nancy Karraker that she discovered her passion for frogs and salamanders.

“There’s just something about them — how they work with the environment, and how they need a healthy environment to thrive — that is appealing to me,” said Bien-Aime, a Cranston resident studying wildlife conservation biology. “I’ve had some cool experiences working with them, and I know this is what I want to do with my career.”

Bien-Aime spent the last eight months working with Karraker and graduate student Allen Hamilton conducting an analysis of how much forest cover frogs and salamanders prefer around their breeding ponds. She conducted surveys of 39 ponds in Rhode Island, looking for wood frog and spotted salamander eggs, netting red-spotted newts, and listening for the evening calls of wood frogs, green frogs, bull frogs and spring peepers.

“They all breed in ponds, but they need a forested buffer around the pond to complete their life history,” she said. “We’re losing our forests to development and timber harvesting, and my project was to see how that forest loss is affecting them.”

Her results were most conclusive when focusing on wood frogs, a common brown and tan species that spends most of the year moving about in the forest within a couple hundred yards of their breeding ponds. Bien-Aime found that wood frogs were present when at least 50 percent of the pond was surrounded by forest. At larger ponds, however, the frogs were not seen in areas with just 10 to 30 percent forest cover. Wood frogs were observed at smaller ponds with similarly low levels of forest cover, but their abundance was greater when forest cover exceeded 50 percent.

A former member of the URI rowing team, Bien-Aime believes that amphibian populations would be healthier in Rhode Island if the state enacted a law, like that in Massachusetts and elsewhere, requiring a protected forest buffer around small ponds known as vernal pools that are important to many amphibians. Data from an upcoming follow-up study examining 40 additional ponds in Rhode Island may be used to recommend that such a law be enacted in the state.

Bien-Aime’s research was conducted as part of URI’s Coastal Fellows program, a unique initiative designed to involve undergraduate students in addressing current environmental problems. Now in its 19th year, it is based at URI’s College of the Environment and Life Sciences. Students are paired with a mentor and research staff to help them gain skills relevant to their academic major and future occupations.

Following graduation in May, Bien-Aime plans to enroll in URI’s graduate program in environmental science and management. “I see myself eventually becoming a state biologist focused on herpetology,” she said. “But we’ll see what direction grad school takes me.”

Photos by Kerndja Bien-Aime