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Five-Year NSF Extinction Study Builds Skills, Sweat Equity and Trust

The global web of life is weakening at alarming rates: A dozen or more of Earth's species are estimated to go extinct every day. This dire equation prompted Davidson College researchers to ask a critical but often overlooked question: What is the role of luck in driving extinction?

Biology professor Kevin Smith's $770,000 study funded by the National Science Foundation aims to find answers about the role of random chance in extinction. The goal: better prediction and prevention of species extinction worldwide.

As the five-year experiment approaches its midpoint, Smith and his student research team are expanding the scope of their work to test more and different environmental disturbance types. They will gather data to get a better handle on which traits of a particular insect or amphibian species matter most in the extinction process, from dragonfly larvae and tadpoles in a tank to green lynx spiders on a milkweed leaf.

The students have done the work to make it happen: piling en masse out of their Frontier pickup truck at the local hardware store in search of a spigot for their 210-gallon water tank; installing 45 grow-bags of milkweed, bee balm and purple coneflower all in rows just so, factoring in the topographical gradient of their three acres on the college's biological preserve; and in a pinch, engineering a unique system for installing a deer fence on the fly while their professor was away in Cuba.

Smith's students learned more than research methods as he guided them this summer through a season of sweat equity, collaboration, invention and community.

"We often talk about the benefits to our research students in terms of academic skills: facility with experimental design, data interpretation, and quantitative literacy, for example," Smith said. "But what really struck me this summer was how much pride and confidence these students had in tackling new and very non-academic challenges, like building a fence, planning work around the weather, and managing and delegating the work on three or four different projects. While we can't train students for every possible job, experiences like this help provide students with the skills to be thrown into a new work environment with a lot of unknowns, quickly get up to speed and excel."

To learn more about the five-year project, read "Going, Gone: NSF-Backed Research Probes Role of Luck In Extinction" and follow Davidson Conservation Biology @davidsoncobo on Twitter.

John Syme
josyme@davidson.edu
704-894-2523