Six SAMI students patrol Snake Lake to help state biologists

Six SAMI students patrol Snake Lake to help state biologists

Staff writerMarch 23, 2014 

If you want to be a marine biologist, you can’t be afraid to get your feet wet.

That wasn’t an issue for six wader-clad high schoolers as they searched for amphibian egg masses in the shallows of Tacoma’s Snake Lake.

The six students from the Science and Math Institute in Tacoma gathered data last week on amphibian life at the Tacoma Nature Center as part of the Citizen Science program. The students, who had expressed an interest in zoology or biology, are doing internships with the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium.

“It’s a great opportunity to learn about science and nature,” said Craig Standridge, the public programs and visitor studies coordinator for Point Defiance.

The group was led by Brianna Charbonnel, the education and species specialist for the nature center at South 19th and Tyler streets. She explained how to identify different species based on their eggs.

The students waddled around the edge of the lake in their hip waders until they came to a spot where salamanders and tree frogs were known to lay eggs. They slowly stepped into the lake, treading lightly to keep from clouding the water.

Charbonnel warned about the dangers of getting stuck in the mud, just to be on the safe side.

Before long, the air rang with shouts of “I found some over here!” Every time the students found an egg mass, they marked the location and the species on their official Department of Fish and Wildlife data sheets.

Grace McKenney, 17, described the masses as “little clear gel balls.”

Alexjandro Garcia, 17, said he wants to be a herpetologist someday. His first pet was a turtle, and now he’s taking care of a brood of axolotl salamanders.

“This is actually great field work for me right now,” he said. “I was very intrigued by this opportunity. It’s really, really, really fun.”

The purpose of collecting the data was to make sure that species native to the habitat remain there, Charbonnel said. Counting egg masses, she said, was easier than finding adult animals. That proved true after she turned over several fallen logs along the trail in a fruitless attempt to find mature salamanders.

The three amphibian species Charbonnel normally sees at Snake Lake are the Northwest salamander, the long-toed salamander and the Pacific tree frog. Of the three, students were able to find only the two types of salamander. Charbonnel said it might be too early for the frogs to lay their eggs, though she said she’d heard them croaking at night.

Northwest Trek Wildlife Park near Eatonville also has a Citizen Science program. Last week, conservation workers finished the first amphibian survey of the season at a wetland site on the property and identified 167 egg masses, mostly belonging to the Pacific tree frog. They also spotted egg masses from long-toed salamanders and counted several adult Pacific tree frogs.

The Citizen Science program is a partnership among Metro Parks Tacoma, Point Defiance and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Four years ago, the state agency sought help from the other organizations, Standridge said. Conservation organizations often don’t have the money or the staff to collect data in all the areas they would like to, so they partner up with other organizations to train volunteers to collect data.

Since then, a win-win situation has emerged, he said, where citizens become involved and learn about nature while conservation organizations receive data from areas they wouldn’t otherwise be able to study.

“A lot of people would look at this,” Standridge said, gesturing at the marsh, “and not realize the kind of diversity out there.”

The Fish and Wildlife Department uses the information to make decisions, such as whether to develop a piece of land.

After 90 minutes of work, the students shed their hip waders and turned in their data sheets.

“It was actually really fun,” McKenney said. “We got to go out and see them (the animals) in their natural habitat.”

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