Rachel Lane, a senior at The University of Findlay, was not as interested in working with “the fuzzies” as she was in studying salamanders for her internship at The Wilds this summer. The work was in keeping with her career goals that focus on species survival. “I love research, infectious diseases and conservation medicine,” said the Westerville native majoring in animal science with a pre-vet emphasis.
The coveted 10-week learning opportunity at The Wilds, which the Westerville native fervently pursued, was, therefore, a good fit for her. Encompassing nearly 10,000 acres in Cumberland, Ohio, in the southeastern part of the state, it is the largest wildlife conservation facility in North America. Strip mined for half a century, the land now provides open range habitats for rare and endangered species from all over the world. The first species were released into pastures in 1992. “Many of the species at The Wilds are completely extinct in the wild,” Lane said.
The park’s mission is “to advance conservation through science, education and personal experience,” its website states. A variety of activities for visitors of all ages, and overnight lodging are offered.
For student workers, the experience resembles summer camp unplugged, but with intense intellectual enrichment fueled by vital ecological purposes.
The park has long inspired Lane. “My mentor of eight years used to be a veterinarian at The Wilds,” she said. “Ever since I shadowed her and saw an MRI of a takin (an antelope species) I wanted to get out to The Wilds. I wanted to be a part of the magic that was taking place there. I was not disappointed when I finally made it there eight years later.” Lane was one of a dozen students across the country who landed a competitive summer internship slot.
It was Lane’s responsibility to conduct research on six salamander species. “Currently there is a chytrid fungus disease, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, that is causing a large decline in amphibian populations,” she explained. “My research tracked its presence at The Wilds, and looked at different environmental variables that may have impacted its presence.”
Her four-member team found that two species had the disease. A paper she is completing will suggest that continued research be conducted to determine how geographically widespread the disease is, and to identify necessary measures to prevent further spread.
The research was interesting, but collecting the data was an adventure, she said. Each day, the team was instructed to locate certain sites using a GPS, which took practice. “Eventually we became GPS ‘pros,’” she said. They battled bugs, particularly ticks. “At any one time I would look down and find at least three ticks, and multiple new bug bites. While bushwhacking through the forest to find our sites we would often go through spider webs. One time I got a spider web on my face, spider included! That was an exciting morning,” she admitted. “Eventually you get used to the bugs, bites and all. I woke up one night with a tick on my pillow, flicked it off, rolled over and fell back asleep.”
The 17 interns and apprentices lived in cabins on The Wilds property. “Since cable TV wasn’t available, and the internet was sketchy at best, we had to go 30 minutes into town to watch the Women’s FIFA World Cup,” she said. “Evenings with the interns were always filled with deep conversation and questions, including, ‘where do water striders go during a storm since the water surface tension is broken?’”
As another example of Lane’s atypical summer, she said observing two necropsies (autopsies performed on animals), “was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Lane hopes that her learning at UF and at The Wilds boosts her chances at acceptance into a veterinary medicine program. “Researching IVF in swine at Findlay has shown me that the field of reproduction and endocrinology is fascinating. I could also see myself heading down that path for a career,” she added. For the internship, she also took a data analysis course that taught her how to code in a statistical program called R.
Lane also has high hopes for the research she is conducting now. “My work in tracking an infectious disease could make a difference not only in amphibian populations, but in species all the way up the food chain. I think that is way cooler than working with the fuzzies,” she said.
For more information on The Wilds, visit https://thewilds.columbuszoo.org/