Authored by Chloe Moore
Growing up in the largest city in the South minimized the opportunities I had to interact with wildlife, but my fondest memories still come from exploring the zoo, “rescuing” roly poly bugs from the garden shovel or listening to the friendly barred owls that lived outside my window. Every vacation my chosen activity was visiting the local zoo, wildlife refuge or national park. It wasn’t until high school, though, that I realized that my fascination could become a career.
I came to the University of Georgia determined to become a zookeeper after working directly alongside keepers at several zoo camps. I didn’t even hear about the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources until I saw the ambassadors holding a kingsnake. It took all of five seconds of looking at that snake to decide that I needed to change my major to Wildlife Biology. Still set on the path of becoming a zookeeper, I enjoyed my time taking interesting courses offered by Warnell. Who knew you could get class credit while searching for salamanders in the State Botanical Garden of Georgia? It was in these classes that I learned that I wasn’t so sure about zookeeping anymore. Through fieldwork and lab time I started drifting towards endangered species research. During a guest lecture in my Introduction to Endangered Species Management Class, I stumbled upon the wonderful little thing that is environmental DNA (eDNA).
The lecture was about using DNA to track Sea Turtle migrations and improve their numbers throughout the world. I had never taken a genetics class, but the genetics units in my basic biology courses had always been interesting—it had never occurred to me that I could combine a career in wildlife with genetics. I began looking more into it and brought it up to one of my professors who suggested some places I could look to get more involved in conservation genetics. As luck would have it, a couple of weeks later I got an email from my professor mentioning that a researcher from The Orianne Society was interested in having a UGA student help out with some eDNA research. Of course I immediately jumped at the opportunity and set up a meeting with Dr. Stephen Spear.
Here we are, several months later, and I am more excited than ever to continue learning about eDNA and its applications for helping maintain or improve animal populations. Since meeting with Dr. Spear, I have helped with his projects detecting Hellbenders and Mudpuppies using eDNA. I can now confidently say that I can go through an entire DNA extraction process, from water filter to sample, without any help, which I’m excited about considering I had no idea what an extraction process was a year ago. I’ve had the opportunity to set up multiple quantitative PCR (qPCR) plates while also learning how to analyze the qPCR graphs. (PCR is the technique that researchers use to be able to tell the genetic identity of an individual, and qPCR just means that we can estimate how much of the species’ DNA is present.) Yet my adventure in eDNA is only just beginning.
This summer I will work with Dr. Spear on my own research involving eDNA to complete my senior thesis. I plan on studying the effects of human development on Hellbender presence in streams, while at the same time testing a Hellbender habitat model in Georgia and North Carolina. This project will allow me to have practice in ArcGIS, habitat modeling and analysis, and eDNA sampling and analysis. I will get real world research skills that I can take with me as I go to graduate school and beyond. Ever since discovering Warnell and research careers, I have dreamed of conducting my own project to benefit a species, and now I finally have that opportunity. Not only that, but I also get to pursue my newfound interest in eDNA. It doesn’t hurt that Hellbenders are pretty awesome creatures.