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A student holds a finding from a dip net

Class experiences: There’s more to mud than meets the eye

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Staring into a glob of mud, the students saw some movement. A few whipped out their phones to capture what they were watching.

Except, one dropped. The one with the cleanest hands was elected to wipe it off. “But my credit cards are OK,” chirped the phone’s owner, no worse for wear.

This is just one of the occupational hazards that Warnell students might encounter during a class. On this day, it’s a group from Applied Population Dynamics, a class taught to wildlife sciences students at the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources.

You see, in college there are labs—and then there are labs. While one is a place where you might see research taking place, another is connected to a class and denotes a time for students to break out of the traditional classroom and dig deeper into the subject they’re studying.

In this lab, students are quite literally digging deeper. Armed with clipboards and sheets of paper—as well as instructions on how to sample for water-dwelling species—students get instructions from associate professor Richard Chandler on what they are looking for.

“You’re going to see on this data sheet that you’re going to do five swipes—a swipe is where you get in the muck with your dip net and go back and forth, dump it out on the side and see what you get,” Chandler told the students, who had divided into small groups before fanning out across Whitehall forest for the assignment. “You’re going to get dirty, so if it rains it doesn’t matter because you’re going to get nasty.”

The students in the class are all upperclassmen, but for many this is their first deep dive into population dynamics. Throughout the semester, students learn different methods of modeling wildlife populations. They are also learning the computer program R, which is essential for turning large sets of data into meaningful information. Data can come from anywhere, and the models they use may differ depending on the species.

On this humid, slightly rainy day, students are going to be gathering their own data.

Knowing their objective and holding dip nets, the teams of students head down the gravel roads in Whitehall Forest to see what they can find.

In one group, senior wildlife sciences students Sam Robinson, Delaney Caslow, Kayla Claiborne and Erin Hadjidakis jumped into a couple cars and headed out to the first pond armed with a map, nets, tall rubber boots and a list on a clipboard of all the possible species they may find in the mud.

For the next hour, the team stopped at three ponds and created a similar scene at each: One volunteer grabs a net attached to a pole and wades into the muddy water. They plunge it below the surface, pump it up and down to capture some of the muddy bottom, then quickly lift it out and dump its contents on the bank.

From there, the rest of the group descends on the pile. Each pours through with their fingers, looking for small shapes and movements. Every so often, someone comes across something.

“These moles are so pretty,” said Robinson as he pulled a small salamander from the mud. The other students ooed and aahed as he held it out for inspection. “These guys have really chunky heads. Compare him to the ID pictures if you can.”

As they make their way to the various ponds, they mark down anything they find in the mud. When they get back to the classroom, they will compile their data with others from the class and use the information to determine populations in the various ponds.

This team is very clearly rooting for team herp, though. Not everything they pull up in the nets is welcome—even though a lot is.

“Uh-uh, I saw that move,” said Claiborne as she discovered an insect crawling through the slop. Is that a slug of some sort, her teammate asks? “I don’t know, but I hope that one goes away.”

“Macroinvertebrates,” Robinson guffaws. The group is clearly not impressed. “They’re just aliens.”

Once their data is collected, the students head back to a central point where Chandler has set up a station for bird netting and banding. It’s a common practice for collecting data on bird populations, but for many students it’s the first time they’ve seen it set up in real time.

At the end of the afternoon class, the students leave dirty but feeling excited. They’ve collected some real data, and now they get to see how it plugs into the population models they’ve been studying. It’s a real-world exercise that students get to experience with their friends before heading out in the professional world.

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