Montgomery High students join climate change research project

A SSU grad student has enlisted high school students to help determine the impact of climate change on amphibians at a local preserve.|

On the first Monday of their winter break, two Montgomery High School students laced up their hiking shoes, grabbed their cameras and headed to Pepperwood Preserve north of Santa Rosa to do something that would make many vacationing students cringe: scientific research.

Not these two Viking students, however. They jumped at the chance to contribute to a Sonoma State University inquiry into the effects of climate change on local wildlife by helping Julie Byrne-Wittmann, a graduate student in the university’s Girman Biology Group and high school teacher, count frogs and salamanders.

“I love being out here,” senior Aaron Dueck said. He stood in the hilly, 3,200-acre preserve near the edge of a small pond and lifted a square sheet of plywood, called coverboard, to see what animals could be found beneath.

Fellow Montgomery senior Mary Young squatted down, camera in hand, and snapped a picture of a tiny reddish salamander nestled in the soil. Later, she would upload the picture to a website called, where it would be added, along with GPS coordinates, date and time, to a growing list of reptiles and amphibians found at the preserve over the past year.

By recording their observations online for scientists to use, the two students are participating in a growing movement known as “citizen science.” A type of crowdsourcing, citizen science pairs up amateur nature observers with scientists who need large amounts of information. The connection is mainly through social-media-?type websites where people can record their observations and receive feedback from experts.

Young and Dueck, accompanied Monday by seventh-grader Aidan Kelly and an adult volunteer, George Jackson, were gathering data for Byrne-Wittmann’s inquiry into how reptiles and amphibians are being impacted by the changing climate.

In particular, Byrne-Wittmann wants to determine how the sensitive species are reacting to changes in rainfall and moisture levels in the ground. She hopes her findings can one day be used to inform land management decisions and show how climate change is impacting the county.

Another goal of Byrne-Wittmann’s research is to show how citizen science can be used for academic research projects.

The idea was born in 2012, when she was teaching biology at Montgomery High School. Interested in using citizen science as a way to engage students, she incorporated the concept into a spring ecology unit. All 150 of her students participated, heading out into local preserves to observe species and upload their findings to

“They got into it,” she said, adding that her students liked the site because it provided a Facebook-like platform where they could share their discoveries with one another and people around the world. Also, they enjoyed using their smartphones to gather and upload information, she said.

The exercise proved particularly rewarding for one student who had struggled in class but loved to use his phone. One day, he photographed a striped lizard at Howarth Park in Santa Rosa and uploaded it online. Experts identified the creature as a collared lizard, normally found several hundred miles to the south in a drier, hotter climate.

The discovery sparked an online debate about whether the animal could have really extended its range so far north, perhaps driven by the changing climate, or whether it had simply been a house pet that was released.

That debate, in turn, helped inspire Byrne-Wittmann’s graduate research project. It also revealed to her how students can contribute to such work.

“It brought up the idea of these guys contributing to master’s level research,” she said. “I was really amazed at what students can do.”

Now a part-time science teacher at Casa Grande High School in Petaluma, Byrne-Wittmann plans to continue using citizen science in the classroom.

Her call went out for volunteers at Montgomery High School when she launched her research project a little over a year ago. Young, Dueck and a couple other students have been participating ever since.

“I’ve always been interested in science, and this seemed like a fun way to be involved,” said Dueck, who comes out about once a month to check the coverboards he helped install at Pepperwood.

The preserve tucked into the Mayacmas Mountains is one of two sites where Byrne-Wittmann is conducting her research. The other is Sonoma State’s 450-acre Fairfield Osborn Preserve, located atop Sonoma Mountain. Undergraduate students from SSU help gather information at that location.

Tom Greco, a communications specialist at Pepperwood, said the work fits with the preserve’s mission to provide educational and research opportunities.

About 50 research projects are ongoing there, including one in which UC Berkeley scientists have placed sensors to capture information about climate change. Byrne-Wittmann’s project relies on their findings. She will use it to see how changes in weather affect the behaviors of reptiles and amphibians.

On Monday, Byrne-Wittmann and her volunteer researchers were particularly interested in spotting several types of lungless salamanders that breathe through their skin, such as the California slender salamander and the ensatina. Such animals must have wet skin in order to breathe properly and so are very sensitive to changes in moisture, Byrne-Wittmann said. That makes them a good indicator species - a sort of canary in the coal mine for what is happening with the climate.

Last winter, during the drought, Byrne-Wittmann and her volunteers didn’t spot any amphibians until February. But on Monday, following weeks of heavy rain, amphibians abounded under the coverboards. The creature Young and Dueck spotted under the first board turned out to be a California slender salamander. As they lifted other boards, they uncovered an ensatina, several bright green Sierran chorus frogs, and a bevy of fat, rust-colored California newts.

Young eagerly snapped pictures of each find, pausing sometimes to gently lift a big-eyed newt and see if she was carrying eggs, something Byrne-Wittmann taught her to do.

The goal, Byrne-Wittmann said, is for people like Young, Dueck and Jackson to carry on the research so it can become self-sustaining.

“The goal is to have this run without me,” she said. “These guys are really good.”

Staff Writer Jamie Hansen blogs about education at ?You can reach her at 521-5205 or ? ?On Twitter @jamiehansen.

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