RU team set to plunge into the jungle for research

Caitlin Annear will cap her college career with a flourish, and perhaps a few insect bites.

After graduating with a B.S. degree in environmental biology on May 9, she will meet 12 other RU students at Dulles Airport on May 13 to head for the Peruvian Amazon for Maymester.

Annear '15 will prolong her undergraduate collegiate career to study vigilance behavior at jungle clay licks among macaws as part of the RARE expedition that will be based at the Las Piedras Biodiversity Station.

Joining Annear on the RARE team will be:

  • Jessi Basham of Woodbridge
  • Cassie Bonavita of Yorktown
  • Skyler Carrol of Roanoke
  • Will Dowd of Smithfield
  • Steve Gallas of Williamsburg
  • Emily Guise of Mineral Wells, Texas
  • Sara Hebert of Powhatan
  • Diego Kendall of Fairfax
  • Michelle Maurer of Fairfax
  • Hanna Mitchell of Vienna
  • Josh Oliver of Rocky Mount
  • Fallon Parker of Dandridge, Tennessee

The trip will be under the guidance of Assistant Professors of Biology Jason Davis and Joy Caughron in conjunction with Tamandua Expeditions, which focuses on biodiversity research, conservation and responsible volunteer/adventure travel.

Annear will be part of the vertebrate team, one of four RARE student teams doing individual original research projects at the research station in the Madre de Dios River region that lies at the headwaters of the Amazon River. The other teams will be focused on botany, invertebrates and microbiology. To assess the team's reaction to the new environment and diet free of processed food, Michelle Maurer '14, who is on her way to a second degree in nursing, will test her hypothesis that team members who have type O blood, higher average body temperatures, breath heavily and/or frequently, and/or sweat more will experience a higher number of bites than others and that the frequency of bites will lessen as the team adjusts.

"I am more excited to go to the Amazon than I am about graduation," said Annear, a Greenville, South Carolina, native. "I will be part of an academic team braving the jungle in which so many ideas come together."

In the jungle, Annear will huddle in a blind 100 meters across the river from where the birds and beasts drink. Using a portable P.A. system, she will observe and record the birds' reaction to the sounds of a boat, a chainsaw, humans, eagles and non-predatory birds to test her hypothesis that the macaws will show a high vigilance to the eagle, their natural enemy, but be less vigilant or sensitive to the human sounds.

She will also assist Hebert, a sophomore biology major, as she surveys the area frog population for effects of chytrid fungus, a top killer of frog species, and Parker, who will be studying stream demography and aquatic diversity.

Annear, a defender on two conference championship women's soccer teams at RU, is a veteran of successful teams. She sees the same chemistry with the RARE team. Annear said they have spent six months preparing for the expedition by developing individual research projects, coordinating mutual support on other teammates' projects and participating in bonding exercises and briefings at weekend sessions at the Selu Conservancy.

"I want to be in the field learning and doing amazing things, constantly exploring," said Annear, a 2015 McGlothlin Travel Grant recipient. "This is just another such opportunity Radford University has provided me."

The RARE team represents many of Radford University's ambitious researchers. Annear is one of two McGlothlin Travel Grant recipients. Three Scholar-Citizen Initiative Highlanders-In-Action, two Biology Research Award winners and the winner of the Ruth Brecker Painter Award for Biology are also participating in the expedition.

"The expedition will be a catalyst for each of the students to take it to the next level," said Davis. "They can accomplish scientific goals with new discoveries in an off-the-map, poorly-studied and threatened environment. They will experience a one-of-a-kind, eye-opening personal opportunity. I think it is inevitable we will come back with new information and a deeper level of science."

The team will return June 7. They will travel by jungle road and river to reach the station's location deep in the lowland tropical rainforest at the base of the Andean range, one of the most biologically diverse regions on earth. They will also visit and volunteer at the Tambopata Animal Rehabilitation Station and have been challenged to a friendly soccer match by residents of the nearby town of Lucerna, according to Davis.

The team will be equipped with field and laboratory equipment, such as wireless microscope cameras, solar power generators, sat-fi Internet connections, genetic sampling and preservation systems, infra-red trail cameras, GoPro cameras, forestry, soil and water testing gear and an abundance of curiosity.

May 18, 2015