Friday, June 07, 2013

#548 Mountain Lake Biological Station

In 2009, I made my first trip to the University of Virginia's Mountain Lake Biological Station, a residential research and teaching field station on a mountaintop in southwestern Virginia.

I quickly learned the study of snakes is central to the station's mission when a researcher examining the contents of a garter snake’s stomach (termed “barfing the snake”) became so excited upon finding a poisonous newt inside that the station director was alerted immediately via two-way radio.  

It's hard to overstate the level of excitement this generated. A crowd gathered and everyone was really, really excited.  I got excited about how lucky I was to see this apparently rare and thus exciting occurrence.

But I’m a lucky guy.  I've been lucky enough to visit MLBS along with my colleague Chris Gist every year since 2009 to help with geospatial training for summer researchers who work on many topics in biology.

Seems fitting that for our 5th annual visit we focused once again on snakes.   This time we organized teams of students to map the location of over 200 “snake boards”, stiff black plastic rectangles scattered around the station grounds.  Snakes love to hide beneath the warm snake boards. 

Herpetologists regularly check under every board, collecting the snakes, weighing, measuring, examining, and recording every detail.  Combining many years of these data with locations in geospatial software will give researchers new tools for analysis.  And that gets me excited.

A highlight for me on this most recent visit was the station director asking if I remembered that red letter day when they found the newt inside the garter snake.  Apparently the researcher still talks about how happy she is that I asked for a demonstration of her snake work which led her to check a nearby snake board at a time she would not normally visit and find for only the second time ever at Mountain Lake Biological Station, a garter snake with a newt inside. Now that's exciting.

Yours in asking the right question at the right time,

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