Paradise Found: The SJU Biodiversity Laboratory
by David King '08
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Think of wildlife at Saint Joseph’s University, and the images that come to mind might be the hawks that nest atop Barbelin, cats that prowl the grounds of Wolfington or perhaps particularly bold squirrels that attempt to steal lunches near the library during outdoor study sessions.
But what many alumni may not know is that deep inside SJU’s Science Center reside fascinating and rare species from the world over.
From turtles to frogs to climbing lizards and exotic fish, these animals make up the biodiversity lab, a wonderland of living, scientific opportunity for biology students. There, they can work with and study species most people will never see — and some species that may never be seen again.
In the Beginning
McRobert’s original intent for the lab was modest, but over time, from simple beginnings, it grew into the ecological center of learning it is today.
“None of what you see here today was planned,” says Scott McRobert, Ph.D., a professor of biology and geneticist, “but it is what I’ve always wanted. I just didn’t know that starting out.”
McRobert’s Science Center office, its walls lined with tanks of lizards, frogs, turtles and fruit flies, hums with the sounds of filters and steamers as he recalls when he first arrived on Hawk Hill in 1989.
At that time, he says, the biodiversity lab was a single room primarily used to study Drosophila, common fruit flies, which make an excellent test animal.
He brought in a few box turtles, and students took interest. Seizing the prospect of giving students the chance to study more creatures hands-on, he added a few additional specimens.
Soon, the fruit flies were moved to a new lab to make room for more turtle tanks — until that room filled with turtles, as well. Then came the fish tanks for experiments, and the flies were shifted to yet another room.
“We keep bouncing the Drosophila around,” McRobert says. “Each progression of the lab has been chasing them from one room to another.”
Today, the lab comprises three separate rooms in the Science Center and a greenhouse on the roof, where colonies of turtles — including a large collection of albino turtles — overwinter.
It’s rare for a college or university to have so many different species of reptiles, fish and amphibians in a research laboratory, according to McRobert. Typically, labs stick with certain common species, such as flies and mice, that are easy to study and low maintenance.
“We sort of do it backwards,” McRobert says. “With most science, you have a question, then you go about trying to find an organism so that you can study that question. We find animals we think are really cool, then we ask, ‘What do we want to know about them?’”
Greg Way, a graduate biology student, sees McRobert’s inverted approach to research as one of the advantages of working in the lab.
“One of the coolest things about the lab is the opportunities students have to guide studies,” Way says. “If you come to Dr. McRobert with an interesting idea for something you’d like to study, he’s open to it.”
Way is studying the behavior of zebrafish, a species commonly used in experiments. He observes their personality traits to measure where they fall on scales of boldness or aggression.
“It’s long been assumed that all the individual fish are alike,” Way says. “But we’re finding some are bold and some are shy, with levels in between.”
The implications of this study could be far-reaching, because the initial findings challenge the basic assumption of previously accepted research that the behaviors of any group of test fish are indicative of the species as a whole.
Fish of a Different Color
Some of the lab’s most active research involves shoaling behavior in fish. McRobert and his students use a three-chamber tank to conduct many kinds of experiments.
The setup isn’t complicated. Fish are placed in either of the outside chambers of the tank and a test fish is put in the middle. By observing which group the test fish tries to join, much can be learned about behavior.
“That’s a simple experiment,” McRobert says. “But the possibilities for what you can learn from it are nearly limitless. “You can determine if the fish want to be with fish their own size, their own species, with big or small groups, fish they’re familiar with … . There are a million questions you can ask using this basic setup.”
McRobert has published more than a dozen papers on the topic, in fact. The most widely cited of these papers appeared in the journal Animal Behaviour (1998), in which he found fish prefer to shoal with other fish of the same color.
“It seems like such a basic thing,” McRobert says, “but I never saw any studies that said whether fish prefer to shoal with fish that look like them.”
McRobert is far from the only published author in the lab, however. He has assembled a writing group of former students to consult with current undergraduate and graduate students and publish research with them.
Their collaborations have been featured in many prominent academic journals.
“It’s rare for students this young to have scholarly research published like that,” says Jen Snekser, Ph.D. ’05 (M.S.), a member of the writing group. Now an adjunct professor of biology at Long Island University, she says she benefitted from working with McRobert while at SJU.
“When I was just getting started in grad school, Dr. McRobert connected me with scientists from other organizations who were conducting similar research,” Snekser says, “and I’ve been collaborating with some of them ever since. He’s all about introducing students to the scientific community and forming connections with other researchers.”
McRobert’s goal of bringing more students into the scientific community expands beyond SJU.
He also uses the shoaling tank to enable elementary school students to study animal behavior. Throughout the school year, he broadcasts experiments online using a webcam called Fish Cam and invites young students to tune in from their classrooms and record their findings.
“One of the things I love about this lab is that it’s exciting to little kids, college students … really anybody,” McRobert says. “Whether it’s kids coming in and getting to see the turtles or the opportunity for students to run experiments of their own, this is a place where they can all learn something and see animals they’d never see otherwise.”
According to SJU Provost Brice Wachterhauser, the lab’s academic value is comprehensive. “The lab’s ability to connect students with other researchers, at the University and in the scientific community, along with its commitment to the conservation of endangered species, reinforces Saint Joseph’s strong intellectual tradition and pursuit of the greater good,” he says.
Vibrant but Toxic: Poison Frog
In another part of the lab, McRobert and a team of students are breeding brilliantly colored poison frogs from Ecuador as a follow-up to an experiment run in 1997 involving another species from Costa Rica.
They took their research seriously, even travelling to Costa Rica to coordinate with a field station to ensure they could accurately replicate the frogs’ environment. That research studied the effect of changing temperatures on a Central American species of poison frog. It found that changes in the environment’s degree of heat dramatically affected the frogs’ development.
This time, they want to conduct the experiment with the Ecuadorian frogs and a species native to the Northeastern United States to see if the results hold true across different species.
“The frogs lose some of their toxicity in captivity because it comes from the [native] plants,” McRobert says. “Insects eat the poisonous plants, then the frogs eat the insects.
“Still, I wouldn’t mess with them. This tank stays mostly closed.”
Slow and Steady: Turtle Conservation
The fish, frogs, lizards and other species in the lab come from around the globe and locally. Some wind up in the Science Center as hard-luck cases or are placed through the Turtle Survival Alliance, a global partnership for turtle and tortoise conservation with which McRobert works closely.
McRobert and his students even conducted a population study of the markets of Chinatown in Philadelphia where turtles are sold for soup. The Dietrich W. Botstiber Foundation, a humanitarian organization whose mission includes the support of programs that prevent cruelty to animals, funded the study.
Some of the lab’s turtles have been there longer than the students who care for them have been alive. One has been in McRobert’s care since 1975 when he rescued it while it was crossing a busy road in Virginia. A pair of mud turtles marked their 20th year as a couple last September.
Despite their prevalence in the lab, turtles aren’t always the focus of his laboratory experiments, McRobert notes.
“We have tons of turtles,” he says, “but they don’t always make the best experimental organisms. You try to study their behaviors, but they’re like little dogs. They’ll stop whatever they’re doing to watch you when you walk into the lab.”
The turtles’ educational value extends beyond the lab, though, to conservation and ecological preservation. Many of the lab’s turtles are endangered in the wild. One, a Vietnamese leaf turtle, is believed to be extinct outside of captivity.
“To be able to show students an animal and say, ‘There aren’t any more like this left in the wild,’ helps them form a real connection with the species and understand the challenges to its survival in the natural world,” McRobert says. “We keep some species as a conservation effort and as assurance colonies.”
While these endangered species may never be reintroduced into the wild, the colonies living at SJU help prevent them from extinction.
In the wild, however, much can be learned from turtles.
The biodiversity lab has a partnership with the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum in Philadelphia. Students have started a multi-year program to study the community of turtles at the refuge by trapping them and taking measurements of their weight and size, then releasing them back into the wild, tagged for future study.
“We’ve had a great relationship with the Saint Joseph’s University students,” said Brendalee Phillips, a wildlife biologist at Heinz, in a video made about the turtle project last summer.
“They have done a great job of getting out there, collecting the data … then analyzing it, putting it together and transferring that back to the refuge, so that I can use it to help the habitat and help the animals that are here.”
David Kays, a graduate biology student, had worked on a large turtle conservation program as an undergraduate at Messiah College. With the Heinz project, he has the chance to be part of an important study from the start.
“The beauty of a mark, capture, release program is the huge amount of data it generates,” says Kays. “From the foundation we’re laying, we should be able to get a lot of usable data and spring many projects from there.”
McNulty Scholar Maria Galassi, a third-year biology major, is also part of the Heinz project and built the enclosures used to trap the turtles last summer. She spent the previous summer planning and preparing for the project, acting as an “unofficial” wildlife biology intern at Heinz. “I spent that summer performing visual turtle surveys, building basking traps and observing turtle nests,” she says. “As a Summer Scholar in 2013, we began our first trapping season. Being able to start this research at John Heinz NWR has been an amazing opportunity.”
The students have even received special permission to study red-eared sliders, an invasive species of turtle that has been harming native species by consuming resources. Usually, these turtles are euthanized when encountered in the wild, but the SJU team is tagging and releasing them as part of their research.
“By gathering more data on red-eared sliders,” Kays explains, “we can learn a lot more about them and their impact on the environment.”
Biodiversity and Ecological Preservation
McRobert’s lab has been the fulfillment of a life spent observing the behavior of creatures that never cease to fascinate him and working toward the preservation of their ecology.
“When I was a kid, this is all I wanted to do,” McRobert says. “I never envisioned a lab. I just wanted to be at the local pond every day catching turtles. Everyone just assumed I’d grow out of it as I got older, but I didn’t. I never had anything else that sparked my excitement more than that.”
Today, his students feel a similar draw to these same creatures.
Leigh Anne Tiffany, a junior majoring in biology with a journalism and animal studies minor, intended to begin her studies at SJU as an international relations major. She thought she was headed for a career in diplomacy.
On her campus tour as a prospective freshman, though, she found herself fascinated by the biodiversity lab, wondering what was going on inside all those tanks. Eventually, she worked up the nerve to talk to McRobert about volunteering there.
“Dr. McRobert told me, ‘I have a good feeling about you,’” Tiffany recalls. “And he set me up to take care of a few tanks.”
Now one of the animal care coordinators of the lab, Tiffany helps match the 16 undergraduates who care for the specimens and ensure everything runs smoothly — or at least as smoothly as possible.
“Every week we have some problem in here where a filter will break, water will go sour, turtles will get into fights,” McRobert says, “but our students become very good at observing these animals and learning the signs of trouble.”
It’s a huge responsibility students take on gladly. Some are looking to futures as veterinarians where their experience with exotic animals may prove invaluable. Others will go into research fields or pursue graduate degrees.
Still more are drawn in just because of their love of animals.
“This lab brings in a lot of different people,” says Tiffany. “We call ourselves ‘the gang,’ and it’s almost like a family experience. No matter what you want to do in the future, the lab lets you shape that experience.”