Lab's world-record study still going after more than 30 years
NEW ELLENTON — The method is simple and low-tech. Build a fence out of aluminum flashing, which is used by roofers, and metal posts. Put buckets in the ground on both sides of the fence and don't cover their tops. Check the buckets every day and see what animals have fallen into them while trying to climb or get around the fence.
Since 1978, this has been the way scientists at the University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Laboratory have kept track of the creatures wandering in and out of the seasonal wetlands known as Rainbow Bay at the Savannah River Site. In 1999, Guiness World Records recognized the effort as the longest daily amphibian study in the world, and as far anyone at the ecology lab knows, that status hasn't changed.
“I don't think anybody will ever catch up to us because it could go on and on and on,” said Whit Gibbons, a senior research ecologist and professor of ecology (emeritus) at the lab.
In January, two men who played major roles in the Rainbow Bay study in the past, Joseph Pechmann of Western Carolina University and Ray Semlitsch of the University of Missouri, are returning to the ecology lab for a brainstorming session.
They and the lab's staff will discuss the endeavor's future and how the data collected can be used in ways that it hasn't.
Gibbons believes the study won't be ending anytime soon.
“It has produced a huge, valuable data set that can be used for many different purposes, such as looking at problems like global warming that require long-term information.”
The results of the more than 30 years of research at Rainbow Bay are internationally known. They have changed the techniques scientists use to learn about some animals and often are cited in academic articles. They also have shown why certain creatures reproduce successfully and why they don't.
“At the time the study started, the Department of Energy was building what's called a defense waste processing facility right on top of a wetlands called Sun Bay,” Gibbons said. “The ecology laboratory's proposal was, OK, if you are going to do this, then you need to look at another site that is very similar to this one to see what you have destroyed. We looked at the animals in Sun Bay and Rainbow Bay, and we made comparisons. Sun Bay disappeared and basically became a parking lot, but the work at Rainbow Bay is still going on.”
Nearly 70 species of amphibians and reptiles have been found at Rainbow Bay. They include marbled and tiger salamanders, pine snakes and barking tree frogs.
“One of the strangest findings was a striped mud turtle,” Gibbons said. “That was very unusual then because, at the time, it was hardly even known that it lived in South Carolina.”
Rainbow Bay is located in the center of the Savannah River Site and it covers 2.4 acres. Sometimes there is a lot of water there, and sometimes there is very little or virtually none.
“The population size of some species changes radically there,” said Judith Greene, a research professional at the ecology laboratory. “It's feast or famine, depending on how much rainfall there is. Is it a wet year when they are able to reproduce or is it a dry year and the bay dies up too fast so they are not able to reproduce?”
David Scott, a research professional at the ecology lab, is especially interested in Rainbow Bay's marbled salamanders, but his work in the wetlands has brought him in contact with many other animals.
“You find things you might not expect to get in a bucket in the ground like a pileated woodpecker or a screech owl; maybe they were flying low and hit the fence,” he said. “It wasn't until after 20 some years that we had our first capture of an alligator, and it was over a meter long.”
There are 88 buckets in all at Rainbow Bay, 44 outside the fence and 44 inside the fence.
At times, researchers have discovered hundreds of salamanders or thousands of baby spadefoot toads in just one bucket.
“We even check what's in the buckets on Christmas,” Scott said.
Dede Biles is a general assignment reporter for the Aiken Standard.
She has been with the newspaper since January 2013. A native of Concord, N.C., she graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.