Out West student blog

The Little Things that Run the World

Rescuing a gopher snake from the road. (Photo credit: Dr. Christy Wyckoff)

By TJ Francisco
Earth Systems, 2020
Conservation Ecology Field Assistant
Santa Lucia Conservancy

I couldn’t believe the day we’d just had. Emerging from the pond, I reflected on our successful haul: California newts, aquatic garter snakes, vulnerable California red-legged frogs, literally hundreds of Pacific chorus frogs/tadpoles, a gorgeous alligator lizard I snatched from the grass at the water’s edge and too many giant water bugs (the common name of Belostomatidae – in the south we call ‘em alligator fleas and they’re even bigger than you’d think). The disappointment of not finding any vulnerable California tiger salamanders was obfuscated by my extreme excitement.

Ever since I could walk, I’ve been catching and admiring herps. Herps, short for herpetofauna, are reptiles and amphibians. And now I get to study them for work, a real dream come true. Wading into ponds with dip nets and seins in search of vulnerable frogs and salamanders is part of the Santa Lucia Conservancy’s environmental DNA (eDNA) survey which aims to monitor and safeguard local populations of the two amphibians. Along with on-site capture, we take samples of pond water to send off for processing. Amphibian DNA persists in these small ponds for a few weeks, so the lab will be able to let us know if any red-legged frogs or tiger salamanders evaded our nets and were in fact present.

A daily view from the field. (Photo credit: TJ Francisco)

I’m in the third week of my internship and now that I am oriented, I am starting my own summer research. My personal project is to compare insect diversity in grazed plots versus adjacent plots of land that have purposefully never experienced any grazing.

As much as I love herps, eDNA sampling is just one of many long-term projects I am helping the Conservancy with for my summer internship; so far, every single day on the job has been unique. One day I might be trapping and banding endangered tri-colored blackbirds and the next I am putting up fencing for the cattle paddocks, learning about our conservation grazing program. The Conservancy conducts myriad surveys and restoration efforts in an attempt to protect threatened species and local habitat in the northern portion of the Santa Lucia mountain range. It is inspiring to observe how a very small, but very high-functioning team can make a big impact over 20,000 acres. And even though I am here to study conservation biology, some of my most important lessons come from sitting in on the all-staff Monday meetings which offer me insight into the functioning of a non-profit land trust. We bounce ideas off of each other, sometimes suggestions compete with one-another, attaboys are thrown around and ultimately, the team gets on the same page.

I’m in the third week of my internship and now that I am oriented, I am starting my own summer research. The Conservancy has two cattle herds that are strategically moved around the Preserve’s grasslands for conservation purposes. The goal in mind is to use the cattle to actually revitalize our grasslands; they eat the dead thatch and many of the invasive species, helping native grasses recolonize the land. My personal project is to compare insect diversity in the grazed plots versus adjacent plots of land that have purposefully never experienced any grazing. I’m sure most, if not all, ecoscientists would agree with EO Wilson’s assertion that insects are “the little things that run the world”. They are integral to the health of the world’s terrestrial ecosystems, so hopefully I find greater diversity in the grazed plots, bolstering support for our conservation grazing agenda. If not, the survey could provide insight into what might need to be tweaked in the grazing effort.

I’m very excited for everything to come at the Conservancy and can’t wait to bring what I’ve learned here to my future endeavors! I’ll check in again come August!


Read more at the Out West Student Blog »

Recent Center News

A keystone species slowly disappears from the Yukon; Cuyama Valley, California farmers boycott Big Carrot; a pond turns pink in Maui; environmentalists oppose an Alaskan Arctic oil drilling project; direct-air carbon capture arrives in the Central Valley; pikas return to the Columbia Gorge; and other environmental news from around the American West.
Advisory Council Member Nancy Pfund and colleagues author a new paper exploring the benefits of prescribed burns, highlighting how new technologies in wildfire mitigation, vegetation management, and forestry can help prevent catastrophic fire. The paper also investigates how a variety of innovative funding models could be harnessed to dramatically scale the ability to use prescribed burns safely and effectively in the future.

Photo courtesy of Brandon Kapelow

Every year, the Bill Lane Center awards a $5,000 fellowship to support a journalist illuminating crucial issues about the American West. We are proud to announce Brandon Kapelow as our 2023-2024 Western Media Fellow, and the publication of new work by last year's fellow, Janet Wilson.