Barely finished with her freshman year at Wingate University, Sierra Kincaid spent the summer of 2016 getting down and dirty in the world of the hellbender salamander. The biology major waded through 16 rivers and collected more than 5,000 macroinvertebrates, which she examined through a microscope throughout much of the colder fall and winter months.
The hours Kincaid spent collecting specimens and then eyeing them through a microscope and recording the data will pay off later this month, when Kincaid expects to present some of the findings of her research at the Association of Southeastern Biologists Conference in Montgomery, Alabama.
A native of Hickory with a love of the outdoors, Kincaid has been working alongside Dr. Shem Unger, an assistant professor of biology at Wingate, on a summer research project that examines the hellbender salamander and the water quality of the rivers it inhabits.
Kincaid hopes that the research will lead to a better understanding of water quality and ultimately to people taking better care of waterways.
“It’s been difficult but definitely worth doing,” Kincaid says. “To see something change for the positive would surely be a reward for all the hours spent staring at bugs under a scope.”
The research opportunity
Kincaid, who spent much of her childhood in the mountains around Burnsville, came to Unger’s attention in his Biology 160 class. Having done research for several years on the eastern hellbender, Unger was looking for a student whose interests might complement his further exploration of the salamander’s habitat.
“She did exceedingly well in the class and in the lab and asked a lot of questions,” he says of Kincaid.
Unger saw the project, funded through the University’s summer research program, as a way for Kincaid to delve deeper into questions about water quality and to gather data on potential food sources for larval hellbenders.
One of only three giant salamanders in the world, the eastern hellbender is found in fast-moving mountain streams in five North Carolina river basins along the state’s western edge. It also thrives in some portions of northern Georgia.
“There are a lot of unknowns when it comes to them,” Kincaid explains. “No one really knows what larval hellbenders eat. So we were looking at water quality and what could be feeding the hellbenders. The rivers we chose to study went hand-in-hand with where the hellbenders are.”
Since macroinvertebrates have long been used as indicators of water quality, much of Unger and Kincaid’s work involved sampling different parts of rivers to determine what macros were thriving there and what others were lacking. Kincaid had worked with youngsters at the Catawba Science Center collecting bugs from creeks. But with Unger she learned much more about research procedures – mapping out the area with GPS coordinates and making detailed notes about nearby development, tree cover, water depth and other characteristics of the river, all before dipping the nets or stirring the substrate.
Once collected, specimens had to be identified so that, for starters, the biotic index and the EPT index – the numbers of mayflies, stoneflies and caddisflies – of each area could be determined. For Kincaid, that meant that between the trips into the field – four or five excursions covering two or three rivers each – she virtually lived in the lab, working through dichotomous keys and honing her bug-ID skills.
A dichotomous key is a tool that enables the identification of items in the natural world – in this case, tiny organisms that could be sources of food for salamanders.
“We would sort them down to genus, bottle them and then key them out to confirm what we had,” she says. “Some of them would take 150 to 200 steps on the key and come down to something as minute as the arrangement of setae on the left tarsal claw. One specimen could take two or three hours to key out.”
When she wasn’t camping next to a river, Kincaid says, she was “sitting with her face over a tray of ethanol,” used to preserve samples. She said the many hours working alone were both a blessing and a curse.
“Dr. Unger showed me what to do but then turned me loose with the (dichotomous) key in the lab, which was good, because I had to learn what works best for me,” she said. “It’s been a heavy load, but I’m glad he entrusted it to me to challenge me and make me have to work for it.”
Unger commended Kincaid’s scientific skill and persistence and said that over a few months she had become “an expert at keying out bugs.”
“Sierra has worked really hard in the field and in the lab,” he says. “This kind of work is enough to drive most people bonkers with the number of bugs she’s looked at. This is pretty big for an undergrad project. Sierra is really kind of a rock star.”
For Kincaid, the work does have some perks.
“I got to meet some of the state biologists, which was awesome,” she says. Also, the research took her into the mountains where she grew up, and she was excited to find several genera of mayflies and caddisflies that are unique to the region.
In addition to the bugs, Kincaid and Unger often caught snails, worms, crayfish and small salamanders in their nets.
“That was OK, though, as we can see what’s feeding on our macros, which is very helpful in characterizing the river as well,” Kincaid explains. The research took her and Unger from the Raven Fork and Oconaluftee rivers on the Qualla Boundary down into the Blairsville area north of Atlanta.
Informing the scientific community
Unger expects their findings to benefit not only his hellbender research and Kincaid’s work on water quality, but the wider scientific community, including organizations such as the N.C. Wildlife Commission, which considers the eastern hellbender a “species of special concern.” He said Kincaid will likely present the work at a regional herpetological conference in addition to the event in Alabama.
“This should give Sierra a lot of data to present, which is pretty impressive for this stage in her career,” Unger says. He’s already contemplating a short follow-up project this summer that would involve macroinvertebrate research at some less healthy streams for comparison.
“By the time she graduates from Wingate, she will have done this research and gotten it published,” Unger says. “At the end of the day, this helps build her resume and skill set.”
By this fall, Kincaid hopes to have her work submitted to the Journal of Freshwater Ecology or a similar publication.
Those who don’t want to wait to read about her research can hear Kincaid talk about macroinvertebrates and water quality at 7 p.m. on March 16 at the Batte Center’s McGee Theatre. The second-year student will be among a number of panelists discussing “The Ebb & Flow of Earth’s Lifeblood: Diving into Water Issues in our Midst.” The talk is part of Wingate’s Connected Campus series in support of the Nile Project.
March 2, 2017