By Hannah Courtney, Contributing Writer
Spring break: a time for relaxing at the beach, partying with friends, and surveying wetlands as well as canoeing in a Georgia swamp amongst wildlife. Okay, some of these things are certainly not like the others, but for West Liberty Instructor of Zoology and Ecology Dr. Zachary Loughman and a group of students, it was just the way to enjoy their spring break.
While some may have walked away from spring break with sunburns or dents in their recliners, Loughman and his students returned with some quite different accomplishments.
According to Loughman, the group collected several species of snakes; including two species of water snakes, a Scarlet King snake, two canebreak rattlesnakes, a brown snake, a ribbon snake, and a black racer. Loughman caught several small alligators. They also collected several species of crayfish, trapped some turtles, and even got to see an otter.
Additionally, they used a Mercury Vapor light trap, which consists of setting up a sheet and putting lights next to the sheet which are at a wavelength that attracts certain species of insects. And finally, one of Loughman’s favorite feats, “We found horseshoe crabs this year. That was the first time I’ve found one of those alive. That was actually one of the highlights for me.”
The trip started off in Congaree National Park in South Carolina, about an hour east of Columbia. According to Loughman, they did basic level surveying of a few wetlands in the park and surveyed for crayfish, which is his area of expertise. By the end, they found three species of crayfish and seven different reptiles and amphibians.
From there, the group went to Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Fargo, Georgia. This location is one that is dear to Loughman’s heart. “West Liberty’s been going to Okefenokee forever. My former adviser, Bob Gordon, started taking people there in the late 80′s. I actually went on this trip as a student when I was here, to Okefenokee. So it’s kind of full circle for me, given that I’ve been the student and the teacher, so I know both perspectives very well.”
During their time in Okefenokee the team spent two days canoeing. “We pal around with alligators, snakes, herons, egrets, and otters; all kinds of cool creatures. And the entire time we’re out, we’re engaging the wildlife. It’s not a passive experience. So it’s not ‘hey look, there’s an alligator,’ or ‘look there’s a snake.’ If the snake’s not venomous, I’ll paddle up and grab it. If the alligator’s small, I’ll paddle up and grab it that way the students are looking at the animals that we’re learning about… They’re also literally holding the creatures as well which kind of ads to the whole experience,” Loughman said. Alongside paddling, they also did aquatic trapping, which consists of putting out minnow traps and turtle traps and surveying the animals they capture.
There was no rest for them at night either. After dark, when the majority of the reptiles and amphibians come out from hiding, they threw on headlamps and did hikes during which students captured anything they could and learned how to perform field identification. Likewise, there was crayfish collecting as well.
“We do lots of crayfish collections. I have an agreement with the park that they’ll give us free reign over the park as long as they get some data out of our wanderings and I’ve told them that I would document their crayfish fauna for them,” Loughman said. In fact, Loughman has a few crayfish in a tank on his desk right now that were captured during the trip.
Halfway through their stay in Okefenokee, they spent a day on Cumberland Island, which is a barrier island off the east coast of Georgia. Loughman refers to this as their day of relaxing, although he notes that there’s still a little work involved before the play. Initially, two hours were spent beach combing, where students picked up various kinds of seashells, species of crab, sand shrimps, etc.
From there, they ate lunch, went on a hike and then Loughman set them free to explore for a bit.
Among the unusual and uncommercialized things about this trip was the beach itself. “Since it’s a national sea shore, it’s not commercialized at all, so it’s wonderful. It’s not Myrtle Beach where you’d have beach houses, it’s the way it was before people showed up. There are wild horses on the island. You’re told not to engage the horses but if the horses engage you it’s okay and so (West Liberty Student) Kinsey (Skalican) put her hand out to the horse and one of the horses came up to her. So that was kind of cool,” Loughman said.
All together, the trip was made up of Dr. Loughman, West Liberty Lab Assistants Joe Nolan and Dave DeWitt, Loughman’s former adviser Mr. Gordon, former West Liberty student Mathew McKinney who is pursuing a Ph.D. at W.V.U., and ten West Liberty students. In order to be eligible to go, students have to have taken Zoology, Botany, and Biology 124 and must be either Biology education or Biology majors. However, it doesn’t matter if students are pre-med or organismal biology majors.
The trip was not only a non-traditional spring break for its content, but also for the lack of actual relaxing that took place. “It’s an intensive trip. It’s not a vacation. People sometimes think we go down and pal around and sleep in our tents and it’s definitely go, go, go all the time. That’s the way it works. By the end of spring break I am way more exhausted than I was at the beginning of spring break. So it’s a very intensive experience,” Loughman said.
Still, the pros outweigh the cons and it turned out to be a rewarding experience. “For me it’s very rewarding because I get to talk about all these different things in Ecology lecture and Zoology lecture and various electives I teach, but it’s totally different when I can actually hand a student a horseshoe crab and point out all the bits rather than point to a powerpoint slide. So that’s what I get out of it. I love doing that and since I’m pretty much a ten year old at heart and maintain a childhood fascination with nature, I still have awe moments myself. Like the horseshoe crabs I was talking about, I’ve wanted to see those alive since I was four and I finally got to.”
While most spent their spring breaks skipping town to have some fun or simply relaxing at home, Dr. Loughman and his students went off the beaten, swampy path.
Upon their return, they brought back several accomplishments, great experiences, and one heck of a unique answer to the question: “What did you do for spring break?”