Published: August 07, 2017
There’s nothing quite like walking through a river at night in the Panamanian rainforest listening for frog calls. Ask Nichole Laggan ’18 and her professor and research partner, Taegan McMahon, assistant professor of biology; last summer they spent several weeks in Gamboa, Panama, intensively researching frog decline and nematodes, an alternative host of a fungus that is contributing to the extinction of frogs.
McMahon and Laggan study a contagious (to frogs) pathogen in the jungle. Try keeping frog catching in a sterile environment — wearing a raincoat and gloves, holding all of the equipment out of the water, taking measurements and swabbing samples.
“We wear protective gear, which is extremely hot but important, and we always walk with large snake sticks to make sure the path is clear in front of us. We walk along clear, open trails, not through brush,” explained McMahon. “The frogs come to the edge of the trails and rivers and call for mates. They breed often in these rainwater pools that collect in the trails. The rain creates huge mud troughs that we walk through. We also walk down the center of the rivers listening for frog calls.”
This summer, Laggan is down in Panama again, this time performing the research on her own as the recipient of the Biology Department Summer Fellowship. Working in Gamboa, she is collaborating with graduate student Leah Joyce ’15, and researchers Ximena Bernal and Roberto Ibañez at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI).
“There’s a chytrid fungus called “Bd” for short, or Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis. It impacts frogs globally and has had major impacts on populations in a super negative way,” Laggan said. “Frogs are definitely becoming extinct, they are dying off and the fungus is a really big player in that.”
Amphibians have semi-permeable skin. The spores can burrow into the skin and infect the epithelial layers, causing the frogs to have a very severe reaction that ultimately results in death, Laggan said.
“In other hosts of the fungus, infection may not result in death, but if it’s another host that the fungus can live on in an environment, then it just means more fungus in the environment,” and more opportunities to infect amphibians, Laggan said.
Laggan’s research focuses on these non-amphibian hosts. In Panama, she is collecting small, flying insects in an eight-week experiment.
“This is a really new and exciting line of research for this particular field,” McMahon said. “Most people don’t work with other hosts or alternative hosts to the fungus.”
When Laggan came to UT, she wanted to study marine science. She didn’t anticipate working on a research project with frogs facing extinction.
“It was a way for me to study the ocean without it being freezing cold,” said Laggan of Woolwich, ME. “I thought that marine science was the route I wanted to take, especially being in Florida, but frogs down here are more of a tropical study too, which is also really interesting to me. Plus, we’re talking about frogs that are going extinct, which is something that struck me as really important, a big deal, and I’d be honored to study.”
Laggan, now a senior, had Taegan McMahon as her professor in the first biology course she ever took at UT. After McMahon talked about her research in class, Laggan was so excited that she emailed her teacher immediately.
“I asked if I could do some shadowing with her in the lab and with her other research students,” Laggan said, which McMahon welcomed. “I came in — met her lab and worked with some frogs. I emailed her back, hoping she’d want me to come back again. And she’s been stuck with me ever since.”
In addition, Laggan, McMahon, Megan Hill ’18 and Caitlin Nordheim ’19, are presenting their research on the fungus at the Ecological Society of America’s (ESA) 2017 research conference in Portland, OR, this week, Aug. 6-11. The trip was funded with the help of the Office of Undergraduate Research and Inquiry and the Evan Chipouras Fund.
Laggan’s research is a good example of the types of undergraduate research the University has made a priority. As part of UT’s Quality Enhancement Plan, the Office of Undergraduate Research and Inquiry works to advance the implementation and utilization of undergraduate research, experiential education and creative/artistic inquiry.
Laggan, a genetics and biology laboratory mentor, wants to pursue graduate work and now, because of her experience with McMahon, is considering teaching in higher education.
“I hadn’t thought of myself as a professor before, but the opportunities you get in an environment like this — being able to work with people, inspire students and also be able to conduct all of your research – is how I want to further my career in science,” she said. “Also, the way the biology department feels for me, which is like home at this point. I want other people to feel that way and share this experience.”
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