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Creatures Count

Students conduct species inventory at region’slargest freshwater ecological restoration

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Kim Tocchio, ’19, is dipping her toes in the water this summer in more ways than one.

Kim wades through ponds located in Mass Audubon’s Tidmarsh Wildlife Sanctuary to search for amphibians and reptiles as she works with other Bridgewater State University students and Professor Thilina Surasinghe to assess the transformation of a former cranberry farm into wetland.

“It’s definitely given me the opportunity to get my feet wet in research and conservation,” said Kim, a biology major from Kingston.

The students are conducting a species inventory. The work includes checking traps, recording what is inside, and releasing the reptiles and amphibians back into the wild. They also walk around their approximately 480-acre study area weekly in search of snakes and other creatures that are not likely to end up in traps.

They have found many turtles and frogs, a positive sign for the largest freshwater ecological restoration in the Northeast. 

“Reptiles and amphibians are actually indicators for environmental health,” Kim said. “If you find a lot of them, it means that the environment is doing well.”

Creating wetlands is important for their incredible biodiversity, ability to keep carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere by storing carbon, and other benefits, students said.

The Schulman family, which previously owned the property in the Manomet section of Plymouth, worked with the state Division of Ecological Restoration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, and other organizations on the restoration. Crews re-created almost 3 1/2 miles of meandering stream channel and removed nine dams, among other efforts, according to Mass Audubon.

Now, Dr. Surasinghe, an assistant professor of biological sciences, hopes to learn about what species are there today and how restoration helps amphibians and reptiles.

“You’re looking at a relatively young habitat,” he said. “It’s a beautiful piece of property.”

The species inventory is one of a variety of research projects connecting Bridgewater and Tidmarsh. Dr. Surasinghe is part of Living Observatory, a multi-institutional research network that seeks to tell the story of the restoration and enhance knowledge and understanding of wetland ecology. He is working with BSU student Ashley Zimmerman to study amphibian breeding activities by documenting their calls. And, Daniel Venuto, ’19, and Nikki Montanaro are studying woodland salamanders at several Mass Audubon properties in addition to their work on the species inventory.

The Adrian Tinsley Program for Undergraduate Research, the university’s internship program, and Department of Biological Sciences funded students’ work on the species inventory. Dr. Surasinghe praised the support of Mass Audubon, especially regional scientist Gene Albanese, and Glorianna Davenport, president of the Living Observatory and a retired instructor at the MIT Media Lab. They have provided land and other logistics for the project, which is expected to continue this fall and has taught students valuable lessons about science.

Brett Sheehan, ’19, a biology major from Easton, is interested in science outreach and education and has explained the students’ research to sanctuary visitors. Kim hopes to study marine biology but said the experience has confirmed her desire to have a hands-on job. 

Working at Tidmarsh has opened Daniel’s eyes to the variety of creatures in the Bay State.

“I had no idea we had so much around,” the biology major from Bridgewater said. “I’ve come to learn there’s a lot of really beautiful wildlife that live around here. I feel like more people should go out and experience what Massachusetts has to offer.” (Photos by Drew Cambra, ’19, University News)

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