Invasive reptiles like the Burmese python (Python bivittatus) and Black-and-White Tegu Lizard (Tupinambis merianae) are exerting tremendous harm on Everglades ecosystems, but these problematic species present an excellent opportunity to engage the next generation in science. Since entering into an agreement with Everglades National Park in late 2013, the Invasive Species Science Branch of the U.S. Geological Survey's Fort Collins Science Center has provided internships for, and, in turn, benefitted from, 13 young people conducting research on invasive reptiles in the Everglades.
Each participant - hired as an intern through the youth corps or via an agreement with the University of Florida - has uniquely and meaningfully contributed to the team’s invasive species research. “Our project workload has significantly increased over the last couple of years, and we rely heavily on help from our interns,” says Michelle Collier, a Biological Science Technician, who provides direct oversight of the students. Some interns can write informative, easy-to-understand protocols or are fast and meticulous with data entry while others have the charisma for effective outreach or are highly-efficient in the field. “There are so many jobs to be done, and we’ve found they respond well when they have something to be in charge of, to be proud of,” she says.
“There is no ‘typical’ day for most of them,” says Dr. Bryan Falk, the project lead in Florida. “We hire interns for a set of core duties, but in the end, they wind up wearing several hats and gaining skills in multiple areas.” That diversity in experience includes checking traps and automated cameras, radio telemetry, road cruising for snakes, specimen necropsy, museum specimen preparation, and data management. Because they’re based in Everglades National Park, the interns are also able to participate in and contribute to National Park Service projects like throw-trap surveys for fish or nest surveys for alligators. “These experiences help with their future job or graduate school opportunities,” says Falk.
The team often has to bring new hires up-to-speed quickly, and uses the experiential education approach of ‘see one, do one, teach one.’ See one, do one, teach one is a traditional format for acquiring skills, based on a 3-step process: visualise, perform, regurgitate the new information. Alejandro Grajal-Puche, a 2015 intern, did this with python necropsies. Falk explains, “We necropsy all of the pythons to collect data on size and reproduction, take various kinds of samples, and look for evidence of disease, stuff like that. Some things – like characterizing reproductive anatomy – can be tricky. I taught Alejandro how to do it, and he eventually developed an image-based necropsy guide for the other interns to use. It was advantageous for both him and us.”
Publishing in a scientific journal is a pinnacle achievement for a young scientist, and three interns in the Florida-based group have been authors on published papers or notes, with two of them as first authors. Jill Josimovich, another 2015 intern, is currently writing up a project she completed last year. “They had some interesting preliminary data on growth rates in hatchling Burmese pythons,” explained Josimovich, “and Bryan asked me if I wanted to take on a project exploring how hatchling pythons optimize growth. I was thrilled to be offered such an incredible opportunity and jumped at the chance. I learned an unbelievable amount while managing the project, which included lots of writing and planning, constructing snake racks for 60 snakes, caring for 60 snakes for four months, collecting data, and so on. We’re working on the paper now, and the experience has helped shape the direction of my career.” Josimovich is currently deciding between multiple graduate-school opportunities, all in herpetology.
The team is breaking diversity barriers, too. Last year they undertook a research project to identify covariates of Burmese Python observations, and that research included road-cruising and catching the large snakes in the Everglades. “Field herpetology in general and python catching, in particular, is a bit of a boys’ club,” says Falk, “but we had young women doing it. They were out every night doing difficult work, breaking down stereotypes. One of our colleagues respectfully dubbed them the ‘Ladies of the Glades.’ It’s been great.” The opportunities to engage youth in science in the Everglades in the future also looks strong, and both the students and the USGS win in the end.