A Rare Find
University of Arkansas biologist J.D. Willson and his graduate students wade into the marsh, its water sloshing against their shins.
About 20 feet in, they bend down and check white plastic minnow traps, which look like two small laundry baskets attached to each other at the lid.
But they aren’t looking for minnows.
“I’ve got a snake,” said Phil Vogrinc, a master’s student, as he peers into the trap.
His discovery catches the attention of Willson, an assistant professor of biological sciences leading the field work with Vogrinc and doctoral student Chelsea Kross on this warm spring morning at Woolsey Wet Prairie Sanctuary.
Willson and his students often use the sanctuary as their outdoor research lab. It’s about a 10-minute drive from the U of A campus.
Vogrinc trapped a Graham’s crayfish snake, a main focus of Willson’s research group. Like the name implies, the snake preys on the abundant crayfish in the sanctuary. Indeed, Vogrinc pulls a crayfish out of the same trap and drops it in the water.
The snake, however, is going back to Willson’s lab.
“They are very secretive,” he said. “They spend most of their life either in the water or underground. We happened to come across one here in the course of our field work. We know they are abundant here and the question is, ‘Why is this habitat so good?’”
Graham’s crayfish snakes are considered rare and a species of greatest conservation need in Arkansas. The species hadn’t been seen in this part of the state since the 1950s until Willson and his research team began conducting research on reptiles at Woolsey Wet Prairie Sanctuary in 2013. They’ve trapped and marked more than 300 of them since then.
“Our research will help guide conservation of rare species and habitats as the human population of Northwest Arkansas continues to grow,” Willson said.
Woolsey Wet Prairie Sanctuary, a restored wetland created by the city of Fayetteville about a decade ago, allows students to get a better sense of how the wildlife, insects and plants come together to form a prairie wetland ecosystem, Willson said.
“I can demonstrate almost any concept in an ecology course right here,” Willson said. “And having students be able to come out and get their feet wet and their hands dirty, get to see some of the animals that they are studying and not just reading about them obliquely in a book, it really brings points home and students really get it.”
Kross is studying the crawfish frog, a rare and declining species that depends on prairie wetlands. Her goal is determine how the frog interacts with its habitat. The inhabit crayfish burrows for most of the year.
Willson, Vogrinc and Kross have checked all the traps at the sanctuary and head back to their vehicles in a parking area adjacent to a wastewater treatment facility.
The team pulls out equipment to size up the Graham’s crayfish snake they trapped and bagged earlier that morning. They measure its length, weight and record the remains of a crayfish in its belly. Then it is marked with an individual identification code so that if it gets trapped again, they’ll be able to identify to track the snake’s movement and growth.
Every bit of information is important.
“We learn the lives of these animals that we’re sampling,” Willson said. “Most people have never seen one of these animals and don’t know much about their biology, so here we have the act of discovery in science happening every single day.”
“What we’ve found is that certain wetland-associated prairie species occur at much higher abundances in these restored prairie wetlands,” Vogrinc said.
It’s not just the students who benefit from the field research.
Subdivisions are on all sides of the 46-acre sanctuary, with wetlands only a couple hundred yards from a busy road. This land was pasture before it was set aside as conservation land and managed to encourage native prairie vegetation.
“We have a little bit of everything, including some of the last remaining bits of historic tallgrass prairie and wetland habitat, which are now considered to be the two most imperiled habitats in the country,” Willson said. “What we’re trying to do is really home in on the mechanisms for how development affects important species, both rare species and species that are really important in keeping our ecosystems functioning in the way we want them to.”