Spring break bites: An ABE student's island experience
While most spring breakers head to Jamaica for the sandy beaches and fruity drinks, Armed Rasberry had his sights set on something more adventurous. The senior biological engineering major spent spring break week at the Hope Zoo in Kingston wrangling some of the island's native iguanas to help ensure the species' survival.
"I only got bitten once, but it didn't penetrate my gloves," Rasberry boasted.
The trip was an extension of Rasberry's participation in on-campus research with Mark Welch of the biological sciences department. Through his lab, Welch studies evolutionary and conservation genetics, including several species of endangered iguanas like the Jamaican iguana.
"Armed is helping assess the effects of head starting on the genetic composition of Jamaican iguanas, which is considered a critically endangered species," Welch explained.
Once plentiful, and a popular source of food, the Jamaican iguana population began to decline due to industry and the introduction of non-native mongooses. The species was thought to have become extinct in the 1940s, and was classified as such until 1990 when a single living Jamaican iguana was found. A survey of the surrounding area led to the discovery of an active nesting site and a small population of the species, which prompted the creation of the Jamaican Iguana Recovery Group, dedicated to ensuring the continued survival of the species in the wild through a head start program.
"In the head start program, conservators collect hatchlings from the nesting site and bring them to live at the zoo until they are old enough to protect themselves from predators like mongooses and wild boar," Rasberry said. "Since the program started, they have seen an increase in the population size, but they have to make sure human interference, through head start, isn't having a negative impact on their genetics. That's where our work comes in."
The head-start program has two major components. The first involves collecting, raising and releasing young iguanas. The second part involves collecting data and running tests to determine how effective conservation efforts have been and if the health of the population is being maintained.
Rasberry explained, "By collecting certain specimens from the wild, you are automatically giving them a better chance at survival, and therefore a better chance to pass on their specific genetics. This could lead to increased inbreeding or put the wild population's genetics in danger of being bred-out, and these decreases in genetic variation could send the species right back into extinction."
To study the genetics of the iguanas, conservationists with the head start program collect blood samples that are then shipped to Mississippi State for analysis. Rasberry said he extracts DNA from the blood samples then evaluates and catalogues specific areas of the DNA sequences to compare differences between the head start and wild iguana populations.
"Over time, we want to see if the iguanas' genetics are becoming more similar, which wouldn't be good because it would mean the genetic variation was decreasing," Rasberry said. "But if it's staying about the same or is increasing, that's a good sign."
This work typically keeps Rasberry in the lab, which he says is great because of the experience it provides. But he was grateful for the opportunity to go to the island and experience the project from another side.
"I work with the blood all the time, but I never realized the hard work that went into actually collecting the samples," Rasberry confessed.
At the zoo, he worked with the on-site conservationists and their visiting partners from the San Diego Zoo—people who work with live specimens on a regular basis. Although he is a native of Belize, which has its own iguana population, this was Rasberry's first in-person encounter with the lizards he's been studying. But sometimes the best way to learn is to jump right in to the work.
"They asked me to go into the enclosure to catch one," Rasberry said. "They aren't aggressive animals, but when you walk in, they know you want to catch one, so they start running around and they are fast. You can't be too rough when you grab them, or you might hurt them, but if you grab them too loosely, they'll get away.
"You can't grab their backs because they have sharp spines that will cut you, and they will whip you with their tails. Like other lizards, their tails come off, so that's out. If you try to scoop them up like a puppy, they will get you with their claws. And of course they can bite, but after a while I finally got the hang of it.
"You have to catch them around the neck with the space between your fingers. That way, you control their movement and can safely get your arm around them. The first time I tried to grab one, it moved and I jumped. That happened a few times, but I finally got it."
Once he got the hang of controlling the lizards, which can be up to 18 inches not including the tail, and weigh more than 10 pounds, he learned how to take the necessary measurements and draw blood samples without harming the iguana. In addition to testing the genetic diversity of the population, the scientists also have to make sure that they are physically fit for life in the wild. Once they reach about 5 years old, they are released into the wild to live out their lives.
Towards the end of the week, Rasberry accompanied a group to one of the nesting sites to release six iguanas.
"We camped out on the beach and hiked up to the nest site," Rasberry said. "It's a very rough hike because they don't want there to be a trail that would make it easy for poachers to find the nest. And it is hard to find. You have to go into the woods and up a mountain where the rocks are really sharp.
"At the actual site, they have traps to keep boars and mongooses away. Once the eggs are ready to hatch, they dig little burrows around the perimeter so when the iguanas hatch they just drop right in and the people from the program can go pick them up."
He said that there are about 280 iguanas in the program. That includes four or five animals that were too big or unhealthy to survive in the wild. Those animals are kept at the zoo and help visitors learn about the importance of conservation.
As for his own learning experience, Rasberry says working in the lab was the best job he could have hoped for while in college.
"I had a really mundane job where I was basically just sitting there all day, but I really needed a job to help me build my resume in the scientific field," Rasberry recalled. "I asked the teaching assistant in one of my classes how she got her job and she said to just look for research that I found interesting and ask around for opportunities."
That's exactly what he did, and now, Rasberry will graduate with not only lab experience, but also field research experience and several award-winning research presentations on his resume. He says he would advise any students who want to explore academic work experiences to take the initiative to talk to their professors and researchers in their departments to see what is available. There are always opportunities for students who are eager to learn.
Story written by: Susan Lassetter