Coastal Fellow seeks endangered salamanders

A walk through the wilds with Emma Paton ’21

Innovative and Distinctive Programs

Her career path begins on a mountain trail

Every day for 10 weeks during the summer, Emma Paton ’21 put on her backpack and hiked into the Jemez Mountains in New Mexico. She followed a specific trail, checking under logs and rocks as she searched for Jemez Mountains salamanders, an endangered species that only resides in the area.

In all her travels she found 24, and that’s up from seven last year.

Paton, from Hope Valley, RI, is a wildlife and conservation biology major. She was selected as a URI Coastal Fellow to work with Associate Professor Nancy Karraker from the College of Environment and Life Sciences. The Coastal Fellows Program is a unique opportunity for undergraduates to participate in research that addresses environmental problems.

It was Paton’s job to visit four artificial habitat locations that Karraker had created – terracotta saucers, rock piles, and boxes with wood chips to mimic natural logs – to see if any salamanders were using them. She also was checking natural sites where salamanders had previously been found and other likely hiding places.

In addition to her salamander survey, Paton swabbed every salamander and frog she could find – even some invasive earthworms – to determine if they had contracted a disease that has killed many amphibians in the tropics. The disease has been found in some salamanders in the Southwest, and Karraker is trying to determine how it may have spread to New Mexico.

“I liked every part of my experience. I got a lot of exposure to things I haven’t been exposed to before. I even got to work with a Park Service biologist who was studying mountain lions and bears. The fellows program definitely confirmed that I’m on the right career path.”

–Emma Paton ’21

The project convinced her to investigate internship opportunities with the U.S. Forest Service to gain additional experience. While she knows that graduate school is in her future, there are a lot of different tracks that she could pursue.

“It’s hard to say what’s next,” Paton admitted. “I can see myself going down many different paths. I’m keeping my options open.”

URI is committed to expanding experiential learning for all students. The Coastal Fellows Program, which has been in place for 23 years, pairs a student with a mentor to help the student gain skills relevant to her/his major and future occupation.

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