Student’s Research on Cheatgrass and Snakes to be Published

OGDEN, Utah – Zoology major Lucas Hall has been bitten by the undergraduate research bug, just like he was once bitten by one of the western racer snakes he studied while conducting field work on Antelope Island in 2005.

 

 Zoology major Lucas Hall poses with one of the 
western racer snakes he studied on Antelope Island.
 

Fortunately for Hall, western racers are non-venomous and the bite didn’t draw blood—but his research findings on the relationship between Antelope Island’s snake population and the increase in non-native cheatgrass did draw interest from the Western North American Naturalist journal, which will publish his findings in its January 2009 issue.

Born in St. George, Utah, Lucas said his affinity for snakes and reptiles is the result of spending parts of his childhood in southern Texas and the outskirts of Las Vegas. “My first 10 years, I always lived in a desert or a reptile-friendly climate,” Hall said. “As kids, my cousins and I would go looking for snakes.”

When he moved to Roy, Utah, 20 years ago, Hall missed the desert and started looking for snakes in northern Utah. That lifelong interest in snakes became the impetus for his Antelope Island research.

Having seen a couple of his fellow students at Weber State University drop their zoology major because of the rigorous coursework, Hall sensed that he would benefit from working on a relevant, compelling zoology project—one that would help him determine if this was the career path that he wanted to pursue, and motivate him to tackle challenging courses like chemistry and math. When Hall shared his thoughts with zoology professors John Mull and John Cavitt, they put him in touch with wildlife managers and biologists on Antelope Island, who were concerned about the effect of cheatgrass on the island’s animal population.

Cheatgrass is an invasive, non-native annual plant found throughout much of the West, including Antelope Island State Park, where it has displaced native vegetation in many areas. Its abundance and tendency to dry out during the summer months often promote and intensify wildfires. In 2007, cheatgrass was the primary fuel for the Milford Flat wildfire in central Utah that burned more than 238,000 acres.

 
 Lucas Hall sssesses the vegetation on Antelope Island.
Hall, along with his wife, Erin, and fellow undergraduate researcher Nik Pietsch, spent June through September 2005 capturing western racer and Great Basin gopher snakes on Antelope Island, using 40 funnel traps that were checked daily. It was during one of these checks that a snake nipped him.
Hall’s research indicated that the coverage of cheatgrass reduced the number of snakes. “You would still find them, but the numbers were drastically reduced,” Hall said.

The findings suggest that there is a negative relationship between snake abundance and cheatgrass coverage.  This could be partly due to its dense growth patterns which make it harder for snakes to move through and by so doing often leave a greater evidence trail, which could make them more vulnerable to coyotes, badgers and birds of prey.  Likewise, according to other studies, the animals (lizards and rodents) upon which snakes prey also have trouble efficiently moving through cheatgrass and are subsequently less abundant.

The research prompted Hall to do a follow-up study during the summer of 2006, examining how cheatgrass affects the deer mice population on the island.

“I wanted to see if other animals of the food chain were also being affected,” Hall said. He plans to write the findings of that study and submit them for publication.

Hall said he’s learned a lot from these undergraduate research projects. “If you do the science right, you can get logical conclusions,” said Hall. “If your science is sloppy, I can see how it could lead to erroneous conclusions.”

When he received notice that his research would be published, the letter was addressed to “Dr. Hall.” Apparently the journal’s editor believed the research was conducted by a professor, rather than an undergraduate student. Hall said Cavitt and Mull have teased him about the honorific title.

After he graduates in 2010 with a dual major in zoology and Spanish, Hall plans to enter a zoology doctoral program and hopes to someday earn the title “Dr. Hall.” He would like to become a professor and research western rattlesnake ecology, and share his passion for reptiles with future students.

“This is quite an accomplishment, for an undergraduate to have published his research in a high-quality peer-reviewed scientific journal,” said Cavitt. “His results will allow Antelope Island officials to better understand the effect that cheatgrass is having on the park’s native wildlife.”

Hall credits Cavitt and Mull for his success.

“None of this would be possible without the mentors I had,” said Hall. “I had the excitement and gusto to push the gas pedal, but I would’ve recklessly veered off the road without them at the steering wheel.”

Visit weber.edu/wsutoday for more news about Weber State University.
Contact:

Lucas Hall, undergraduate researcher, zoology major
801-668-2749 · lucashall4@gmail.com

John Cavitt, zoology professor, director of Undergraduate Research
801-626-6172 · jcavitt@weber.edu

John Mull, zoology professor
801-626-6173 · jmull@weber.edu

Author:
John Kowalewski, director of Media Relations
801-626-7212 • jkowalewski@weber.edu