KINGSTON, R.I. – September 10, 2019 – It’s easy to understand why University of Rhode Island junior Emma Paton has had a lifelong interest in wildlife. Her father is a URI professor who studies birds and amphibians, and her mother is a biologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
But when it came time to dive into her first independent research project, she left her parents behind and headed to New Mexico to study an endangered species, the Jemez Mountains salamander.
“I’ve been interested in salamanders since I was a kid. I just loved going outside and looking for them,” said Paton, a wildlife and conservation biology major who lives in Hope Valley. “So when I heard about this project in New Mexico, I knew it was something I wanted to do.”
Working in collaboration with URI Associate Professor Nancy Karraker, Paton spent 10 weeks this summer in the Jemez Mountains of northwest New Mexico surveying for the rare salamander.
“They’re very rare because of human disturbance in the area, but there’s also a lot that’s unknown about them,” she said. “It’s thought that they spend the majority of the year underground and only come to the surface during monsoon rains in the summer, when they like to hang out under cover of rocks and big decaying logs.”
In previous years, those looking for the salamanders often damaged the decaying logs the amphibians preferred, destroying their habitat. So last year, Karraker set out a series of artificial cover objects – terracotta saucers, artificial rock piles, and boxes with wood chips inside to mimic natural logs – to provide additional habitat options.
It was Paton’s job to periodically visit each of four locations where the artificial habitat was created to see if any salamanders were using them. She also sought them out at locations where they had previously been found and searched for them in other areas that looked promising.
“We only found 24 salamanders in 10 weeks, which means they’re definitely still endangered, but that’s up from just seven last year,” she said. “And only one was found under an artificial cover object. But our study wasn’t conclusive. With such a small sample, we don’t have a definite answer about the state of their population.”
In addition to her salamander survey, Paton also collected data about a disease that is killing many amphibians in the tropics and has been found in some salamanders in the Southwest. To learn how the disease had reached the mountains of New Mexico, she swabbed every salamander and frog she could find – even some invasive earthworms – to determine whether they had contracted the disease.
“I liked every part of my experience this summer,” she said. “Being in the field with Dr. Karraker was a really great experience. I got a lot of exposure to things I haven’t been exposed to before. And the whole ecology of the West is so different from what it’s like back in Rhode Island. I also got to work with a Park Service biologist who was studying mountain lions and bears, and that was a great experience.”
Paton’s summer research was supported by URI’s Coastal Fellows program, a unique initiative designed to involve undergraduate students in addressing current environmental problems. Now in its 23rd year, the program pairs students with a mentor and research staff to help them gain skills relevant to their academic major and future occupations.
“The program definitely confirmed that I’m on the right career path,” Paton said. “And it definitely gave me more of a sense of independence just being so far away from Rhode Island and living on my own.”
It also convinced her to investigate internship opportunities with the U.S. Forest Service in New Mexico next year. While she knows that graduate school is in her future eventually, probably on the West Coast, she hopes to get some additional research experience first.
“It’s hard to say what’s next,” Paton admitted. “I try not to plan too far in advance because I tend to change my mind. I could see myself going down many different paths. I’m keeping my options open.”