A team of Texas A&M undergraduate students just got a big dose of small mammals, honing their research skills and getting a feel for the real-world conservation efforts that go on behind the scenes.
In June the team submitted the last assessments for more than 700 small mammals to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the most comprehensive, objective global approach for evaluating the conservation status of plant and animal species, and a guidebook for conservation. The efforts, which relied on volunteer work by 15 Texas A&M undergraduate students, are part of a partnership between GWC, Texas A&M and the IUCN SSC Small Mammal Specialist Group.
“It is important to expose undergraduates to various types of research to help them identify their own interests,” said Nikki Roach, a GWC associate conservation scientist, Texas A&M Ph.D. student and a Red List Project coordinator for the Americas. “Whether they decide they like red-listing or not, this experience contributes to the personal and professional growth of students. For me, it was invaluable to have undergraduate assistance—I could never have done it without them.”
The IUCN updates the threat status of every known animal species about every 5-10 years—a behemoth of a task. The team of undergraduates focused on updating the listings for small mammals—rodents, tree shrews, moles, squirrels—specifically in the Americas. They did so by painstakingly reviewing research publications and reaching out to previous assessors for updates. Their careful work will result in the most up-to-date information about status, taxonomy, changes in range or threats, and a host of other useful information to conservationists.
We checked in with two of these volunteers to find out what conservation skills they’ve developed and whether the project has instilled in them a new love for small mammals: Lauren Naylor, who began with the project in fall of 2015 and who is now a master’s student at Columbia University; and Wendy Diaz, who started with the project in January of 2016 and worked on creating GIS maps showing species’ ranges. Diaz graduated in May.
Q. What surprised you the most about being a part of this project?
Lauren: How many people are involved and how much really goes into this. There are so many steps to ensure that this is accurate and that we have the most up-to-date information. As an undergraduate volunteer, it was neat to see all these people donating their time and knowledge to these assessments to get the most accurate listing.
Wendy: I went in semi-blind, without knowing what to expect. It was a lot more work than I did expect. But you get to know the faculty and a lot of the other graduate students. You can mingle with people with the same interest and as an undergrad, that’s definitely beneficial.
Q. What for you was the most challenging part of the project?
Lauren: Logistically the most challenging part was keeping up with all the taxonomic changes. I’d be searching for this one species without being able to find anything on it and then I’d come across an article where the species has a different name, or an assessor would tell me that it’s no longer known as that. I learned a lot of new scientific names.
Wendy: Working with the GIS, the ARC map program. I was actually taking a GIS mapping class when the whole class received an email about volunteering for this project. But I wasn’t very familiar with GIS and there were many functions that I didn’t know how to use. But in the end, I was able to do the maps correctly.
Q. What is the most rewarding part of working on the project?
Lauren: There are so many rewarding parts. The most rewarding is to know that you’re contributing to something that is an important tool for conservation work. Before working on the project I had referenced the IUCN Red List for projects and for general information, so it was great to know I was making a contributions so that other people could access this information. It was also nice to get the hands-on experience and interact with everyone on the team.
Wendy: The most rewarding part was knowing that this is going to be useful for conservation action to improve the success and survival of these species. It can be used to implement some appropriate measures for the protection and conservation of these animals. It was very rewarding, too, to see the maps I created on the IUCN Red List. My name isn’t on them, but I know that I did that!
Q. What kinds of skills did you develop in the course of this project?
Lauren: I definitely walked away with better organizational skills. Just trying to keep such a large amount of data straight was a learning curve for me and something that I do much better now than I originally did. I also developed an appreciation for the collaborative nature of the field that we’re in and an appreciation for how much work goes into these kinds of assessments. Now I have first-hand knowledge of how the IUCN Red List works and what goes into it.
Wendy: Data mining, conducting literature reviews and a lot of GIS, too. I learned a lot of elements of the GIS program that we touched on in class, but that I didn’t get to fully understand until this project, when I was able to try them and make mistakes.
Q. How do you hope this work will ultimately benefit conservation?
Lauren: I hope that this work will convey the sense of urgency and the scales of the many conservation problems to the public, to researchers and to policymakers. It’s important that we have a readily accessible database where we can see what species are endangered, what species are vulnerable, where they live and what threatens them.
Wendy: I hope the information is used often, especially in those areas where there’s not a whole lot of research being conducted and for the species that have higher threats. Also that this information is used when implementing conservation policies.
Q. Do you have a particular affinity now for small mammals?
Lauren: I do! I have such an affection for shrews now, and adorable little mice. I find small mammals fascinating. There are so many of them and they’re all so very different. My favorite small mammal would change depending on which assessment I’d be working on. The ears will get you every time.
Wendy: Yes. This has definitely opened up my mind to so many different types of small mammals. I especially like the Sciuridae family (squirrels). When they cross my path on campus, I still get excited.