Students complete research projects in Colorado

By Soleil Cardenas

Rodents, insects and flowers were researched over the past summers at Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory by Los Angeles Community College District students. 

RMBL in Colorado provides a 10-week-long research experience for undergraduate students during the summer.  

Students all over the country apply to RMBL but there are only 40 spots available. Over the past three years several LACCD students have been chosen to be a part of the REU at RMBL.

Daniel Novoa, a former East Los Angeles College student, was  part of RMBL during the 2020 and 2021 summer session. 

Novoa’s research tested to see if there was a correlation between the amount of human recreation on trails and rodents. Would rodent populations be affected by the amount of recreation in their habitat? 

Novoa recorded rodent activity by setting up bucket camera traps. These traps allowed him to keep track of rodents and gave him the ability to see pictures of them. But this system wasn’t always a breeze.

 “Buckets would get knocked over sometimes by wind, sometimes by other animals. The buckets were limited by bait consumption rates. Basically, if there was a really big squirrel that came in and ate everything, no other rodents would come because there was no bait left,” Novoa said. 

Despite the difficulties, Novoa was guided by several mentors at RMBL who helped him work around obstacles. Novoa said the biggest problem with the camera traps was the number of pictures they would take. 

Throughout the two summers the camera produced around 65,000 photos. 

In his first year, Novoa manually looked through each photo to organize the different species but he realized this method was too time consuming and not ideal. 

For the 2021 session he worked on an image recognition model that could separate the species without having to look through every photo. 

The image recognition system was successful for identifying squirrels and chipmunks but had issues with other rodents. 

“At the time a different way to process the data was needed because we have to do the project in 10 weeks. 

I used Python to process the data and to extract the metadata of the pictures we had collected. This was actually able to reduce the time of manual categorization by a factor of six. So it was much faster,” Novoa said. 

Novoa’s result for the entire summer of research was that there was no significant correlation between rodents and recreation. 

Novoa dug deeper and on a daily basis he was able to see when there were more pedestrians there were less squirrels and vice versa. Novoa said there were some aspects of his intership that were his favorite. 

“Mountain biking in a beautiful place, taking pictures with all the cute animals and getting up at 5 a.m. to go open rodent traps,” Novoa said.

Diana Bernal, a student at Los Angeles Valley College, said her research project focused on flower abundance and species diversity. Bernal conducted research from 2000, 2021 and 2022. Bernal’s field site was the Virgina Basin which is approximately 3000 meters in elevation. 

“We have all heard of climate change. Climate change is specifically causing a disruption in the mutualistic relationship between the plant and the pollinator. Specifically, climate change is causing snow melt to occur sooner and overall reducing the snow coverage at the high elevation ecosystems,” Bernal said. 

She believed there would be a disruption in overall flower abundance and species diversity since snow melt disrupts the flower blooming season. 

With snow melting earlier than expected flowers would also bloom earlier. Bernal believed this would make pollinators late, thus missing their pollination opportunity. Bernal conducted her study by sampling flowers in her field site area. 

She counted all the flowers in the area and separated them by species. Once Bernal finished counting the flowers she was able to begin studying which insects visit the flowers. 

“I looked at each segment for a total of three minutes and I stood there with my net waiting for a pollinator to come visit the flower,” Bernal said. 

Bernal would then capture the pollinator if it landed on the reproductive organ of the plant, if the insect just landed on the leaves then that would not count and she would not capture the insect. 

She would then take back the insects and pin them to identify by category level. 

This excluded bumble bees and Osmia bees she may have caught, which were released because of other research they were a part of. Bernal’s conclusion to her research was there was no significant difference in pollinator visitations between the three years of data.

 Although, there has been an increase in species richness comparing the last two years to 2000. 

“Is species diversity increasing because there are more flowers? If there’s more flowers, there is going to be more insects visiting those flowers. 

“But when we look at the overall flower abundance, we see that there is actually no significant difference in the number of flowers so that makes our results of species diversity more concrete,” Bernal said. 

Bernal was diagnosed with ADHD as an adult. 

“I struggled heavily with community college, there were many times I began to believe school wasn’t for me,” Bernal said. 

She was scared of going into RMBL, but is extremely thankful for mentors who pushed her to take part in the program. 

RMBL ultimately helped her grow as a person and become interested in something she really loved. 

Moussa Saab, a current ELAC student, said his research project covered the effects of nutrient density of sedge on cannibalism rates on asynarcus nigriculu(caddisflies). Saab studied if the amount of nutrients in sedge, which is food for invertebrates, affects the amount they cannibalize each other.

 Saab conducted his research by studying caddisflies, who turn over organic matter and primarily feed on dead plant matter. 

Sedge grows in ponds and over the winter they die.

 Caddisflies feed on the dead sedge and turn into flies and lay eggs, this is the cycle. 

Saab conducted his experiment by setting up containers with 25 grams of sedge each and 15 caddisflies. 

There were four separate container treatments, one control, one nitrogen, one phosphorus and one with nitrogen and phosphorus. 

These treatments were each replicated 10 times. Saab collected mortality rates overtime, behavioral observations and temperature data. 

“Mortality was very low early on, nobody died immediately. Overtime for each of the treatments the caddisflies ate each other a lot. In fact, we started with 15 and ended with an average of four to six in each container,” Saab said. 

Saab found no difference with the amount of cannibalism going on compared to the type of treatments for each container. 

Saab said he enjoyed being in the environment and learning intimately about it. He also enjoyed meeting people fr

om all over the United States with different majors.

Students at RMBL are able to develop while learning about how to carry out a research project from start to finish. 

Students collaborate with many world renowned professors such as Barry Brosi and David Inouye who both have many interviews with National Public Radio. 

The RMBL application for the 2023 session is available for free until February 15.

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