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K Professor and Students Publish Encouraging Science on the Search for a Useful Bio-Indicator

Maintaining good human health depends in part on reliable markers. Think blood pressure in cardiovascular medicine or blood sugar and triglyceride levels in determining the effects of diet on metabolic disorders. Reliable markers are important for ecological health as well, which is why science seeks them. Associate Professor of Biology Ann Fraser and five Kalamazoo College undergraduates recently published peer-reviewed science (“Evaluating Multiple Arthropod Taxa as Indicators of Invertebrate Diversity in Old Fields,” The Great Lakes Entomologist, Vol. 45, Nos. 1 – 2) that advances efforts to find a manageable indicator of the effect invasive species have on biodiversity.

Like most good science, the journey was both years long and collaborative—as well as a great example of the kind of professor-student partnerships that make science education at K great—a matter of “more in four years.” The idea for the project began with some preliminary data gathered during a lab exercise in Fraser’s Organism Diversity class. That field work took place at the College’s Lillian Anderson Arboretum, where the class sought to test whether the invasive plant species known as spotted knapweed was affecting ground-dwelling invertebrates (mainly insects). Joe Waller ’06 followed up on the preliminary class data with a more in-depth study for his Senior Individualized Project. He used pitfall traps to collect invertebrates in areas with varying densities of knapweed but was soon overwhelmed with huge numbers and types of insects to sort through. He shifted the focus of his SIP to determine whether a certain insect or other arthropod species, such as spiders, might be a proxy or reliable marker for general invertebrate diversity. He spent most of his summer sorting through and classifying thousands of specimens. In late summer a second round of pitfall sampling was conducted and the project’s torch was passed to other undergraduates.

The sorting, identification, and matching of this second sample with the first sample were conducted by Alyssa Bradshaw ’08, David Hyman ’08, Michael Johnson ’06, and Rob Morrison ’06. “We were able to indentify several insect groups as promising indicators of larger invertebrate diversity in old field habitat,” said Fraser. “More work across a greater number of field sites is needed to confirm their usefulness as bio-indicators, but this is an encouraging first step in finding manageable ways to assess the impact of invasive plant species on invertebrate diversity.”

Fraser cited the pivotal role of Morrison in bringing the project to completion and publication, earning him first author on the paper. Such studies are time-consuming but well suited to undergraduate research projects. The K grads continue their science education in various ways. “Rob Morrison is conducting his Ph.D. in applied entomology at Michigan State,” said Fraser. “Joe Waller, I believe, is in a physician assistant program at Michigan or MSU. Alyssa Brayshaw has been working as a research assistant in wildlife biology and is applying to graduate programs in that subject; David Hyman is in medical school at Loyola University in Chicago, and Michael Johnson will begin his Ph.D. in paleontology at the University of Wisconsin this fall. It’s very satisfying to see this collaborative project come to fruition with a peer reviewed publication.”

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