Student Highlight: Melissa (Mimi) Fuerst

Mimi Fuerst, class of 2016
Mimi Fuerst, class of 2016

Summer Salamander Studies

New Century College’s Melissa (Mimi) Fuerst (class of 2016, Integrative Studies) is making the most of her summer, and her undergraduate studies. With her second Office of Student Scholarship Creative Activities and Research (OSCAR) grant, Mimi is continuing her research of mole salamanders on the Piedmont near Warrenton, Virginia.

Under the faculty guidance of NCC Professor Tom Wood, Fuerst has secured two OSCAR grants to install a variety of equipment now in use at a vernal pool where hundreds of salamanders hatch each spring.

The pool was constructed in 2011 with the expectation that many amphibians would lay their eggs there—the absence of fish make vernal pools attractive for amphibian reproduction. In the first year following its construction, Professor Wood noted more than 1,300 salamanders and frogs utilized the pool, based on egg mass counts.

Seeing the pool for the first time as part of her freshman NCLC 103 course in Spring 2013, Fuerst became interested in the species she observed at the pool and wanted to learn more about the mole salamanders at the pool. She applied and was awarded OSCAR funding during the 2013-14 academic year, and this summer is now able to compile a variety of data regarding the salamanders. The equipment enables Fuerst to monitor and observe the salamanders that visit the vernal pool to lay their eggs. She then observes the next generation of salamanders as they hatch and mature.

Salamanders from vernal pool. Credit: Office of Student Scholarship
Creative Activities and Research (OSCAR)

One component of Fuerst’s data collection includes the humane capture of salamanders so that she can transfer each individual to a petri dish for more thorough observation under a microscope. Fuerst notes the salamander’s size and physical appearance and records the soil, air and water temperatures at the time of capture. Following observation, Fuerst releases each salamander back to the pool. Using this information, Fuerst can plot the salamanders' growth rates over the summer and predict when they will migrate out of the pool. This detailed data collection creates a rich picture of life at the vernal pool.

Based on current observations, Fuerst notes that this year’s salamander hatchlings appear to be one or two weeks slower to develop as compared to those she observed last summer. Fuerst said, “This could be due to the cold winter we had, or the temperature this summer---it’s been cooler this year, and that’s another point of comparison. I can look at their development based on date for this summer and compare that to last summer.”

When asked what led to her interest in salamanders, Fuerst said, “The southeastern United States has the greatest biodiversity of salamanders in the entire world. Their habitat is being destroyed at an alarming rate. This has a lot to do with farming, construction, filling in pools and wetlands, especially in northern Virginia. Salamanders are an indicator species, so they tell you a lot about the health of an environment.”

Fuerst expects to be studying salamanders in the future, either as a researcher or educator. She said, “I am also interested in teaching---either formally or informally—in the future. I hope to always work with amphibians. That would be fun!”