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Department of Communications/
News Bureau
22 Davis Hall, 10 Lippitt Road, Kingston, RI 0288
Phone: 401-874-2116 Fax: 401-874-7872

Media Contact: Todd McLeish 401-874-7892

URI student studies pond predators
during summer research fellowship

KINGSTON, R.I. -- September 10, 2003 -- Staring into two dozen buckets each containing pond water and the larvae of a salamander and a beetle, University of Rhode Island student Jessica Gutgsell noted the interactions between the two predators as they battled to the death. This gruesome activity was part of a summer research fellowship that the Wilmot, N.H. resident undertook to gain a better understanding of the relationships among aquatic creatures.

Working with graduate student Emily Brunkhurst, Gutgsell spent several days each week wading waist deep in vernal pools – temporary ponds that typically dry up late in the summer – collecting her research subjects: the larvae of spotted salamanders, dragonflies, damselflies, beetles, and a wide variety of other bugs.

"Back in the lab we’d put one salamander larvae and one insect into a tub and watch them for four hours, checking them every half hour to see who eats who and how long it takes," explained Gutgsell, a junior environmental conservation major. "Usually, the bigger beetle larvae ate the salamander larvae and the smaller beetle larvae were eaten by the salamander larvae. Size seemed to be the main determining factor over who ate who."

Gutgsell said that salamander larvae look like tadpoles with two front legs and fringe-like gills around their head, but eventually they sprout two additional legs and the fringe shrinks and disappears as they change into adult salamanders.

With all of the predatory insects living in ponds, life as a salamander larvae is difficult.

"Water bugs are especially dangerous. They have piercing mouth parts that inject a poison-like narcotic into the salamander, which eventually dies. Then the bugs suck all the insides out of the salamanders," she said with enthusiasm. "It’s gross, but it’s also pretty cool."

Funding for Gutgsell’s research was provided by the URI Coastal Fellows Program, a unique program designed to involve undergraduate students in addressing current environmental problems. Now in its eighth year, the Coastal Fellows Program teams students with faculty, research staff and graduate students to help them gain skills that will ensure their future success.

"In addition to the science of the research, this was a great opportunity to get experience working in a lab and working with scientists and get experience learning how to think more like a scientist," she said.

In addition to the salamander project, Gutgsell also worked with URI Professor Pat Logan collecting aquatic insect samples to evaluate how pollutants in local rivers affect the insect populations. She also developed a system for raising dragonfly and damselfly larvae.

"I’m not sure what I want to do as a career just yet, but because of the project this summer I definitely want to take a wetlands ecology class," Gutgsell said. "What I do know is that I want to work in a field related to the environment. But I’m still waiting for inspiration about exactly what I’ll do."

In the near future, she’s considering spending a semester studying abroad, and maybe taking some time to live in Costa Rica to work on an organic farm.

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Page last revised Wednesday, September 17, 2003 .