darwin student
Melissa Schatz-Miller ’09 logs
introductory biology time in the canyon.

 

Following Darwin into Reed Canyon

Reed canyon is now offering students on their way to class more than a daily opportunity to sight great blue heron, woodpecker, and beaver. It has also become a laboratory for studying natural selection.

Last year, senior biology major Meng Qi ’05 discovered a remarkably evolved population of stickleback fish in a pond near the studio arts building. Qi’s work inspired biology professor Robert Kaplan to start an ongoing research project to monitor Reed lake for more information on the species.

The fish are currently “a hot organism in research genetics,” Kaplan explains. “Sticklebacks come into fresh water from seawater, and are locked in lakes like salmon are. Everywhere they’ve done that, they’ve evolved—they’ve gone from being heavily armored, to having much less armor plating. Previously, we thought this would take place over 10,000 to 15,000 years. Now, [we know] it can happen in as little as 25 years.”

Last November, students in introductory biology gathered basic information on the population. Two samplings yielded an estimated population of approximately 50,000: a high head count with a large impact on canyon ecology. Currently, the population biology class is enriching this data by considering factors such as temperature and location in stickleback distribution.

Kaplan says the sticklebacks offer an ideal opportunity to study the effects of canyon restoration on wildlife. “Every year is going to be different,” he says. “The stickleback’s short life-span allows you to monitor very closely changes in the canyon.”

  stickleback image
Stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus)
can grow to about 3.5".

Canyon specialist Zac Perry is following Kaplan’s project closely. “Bob’s research came at the end of a five-year restoration,” he says. “The long-term success of the canyon restoration is going to be closely tied to it being accessible to students doing research.”

Kaplan says, “This is an extraordinary opportunity to bring students into studying a real organism in the real world. This is a vibrant field site in our own backyard.”

—Emily Mentzer ’08