Biology students research mercury in dragonfly larvae

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Biology Adjunct Holly Heckmann with the help of psychology sophomore Barbara Rosado draws names out of a bowl to select students to go to the Alpine to a dragonfly larvae field study.  Monica Correa

Biology Adjunct Holly Heckmann with the help of psychology sophomore Barbara Rosado draws names out of a bowl to select students to go to the Alpine to a dragonfly larvae field study. Monica Correa

By Diana M. Sanchez

A biology adjunct will be leading a three-day dragonfly larvae expedition starting today and returning Sunday in which students will sample dragonfly larvae for mercury analysis at Big Bend National Park.

The group is going in collation with “citizens scientist” an ongoing program of scientific work in which a network of volunteers, perform or manage research related tasks, such as observation and measurement for National Public Lands Day.

Big Bend is the largest protected area of Chihuahuan Desert and is home to a multitude of plants, reptiles, fish, mammals, birds and insect species.

Dragonfly larvae build up higher levels of mercury than any other types of water dwelling insects and are consumed by fish.

Fish are then eaten by birds, mammals and humans, posing a health risk.

“We are going to dedicate this trip solely to the mercury levels in the dragonfly larvae,” the adjunct, Holly Heckmann, said. “We will collect them and do research on them. We will be able to hopefully narrow that down.”

Mercury is a toxic pollutant that can harm human and wildlife health. Larvae are found in remote national park environments.

The dragonfly larvae expedition is sponsored by Adelante Tejas, a grant partnership with Sul Ross State University to improve science, technology, engineering and mathematics for students.

Alfredo Llamas, biology sophomore, attended STEM-ulate: Science Showcase an event at this college on Sept.18.

It was organized to introduce the sciences available, clubs and organizations.

Llamas spoke with Leslie Hopper, project director of the Adelante Tejas program for Sul Ross, about his interest in the dragonfly larvae expedition.

After conversing with Hopper about previous research studies, Llamas has done with Sul Ross, he was invited to the Big Bend expedition.

Five students and two alternates were selected by a random drawing of students interested in joining the expedition.

“I just put out the word to all of my five classes and asked if anyone was interested. I had a sign-up sheet, and I ended up with over 65 students that signed up, and were excited to join,” Heckmann, said.

The students who were chosen through the drawing are sonography freshman Bianca Garza; nursing sophomores Jesse Fisher, Matilde Vela, Kandice Weighmann and Kira Amaya; physical therapy sophomore Jacob Westfall; and liberal arts sophomore David Monsivais.

There was a limited amount of funding and seating for this expedition, leaving room for only 10 passengers.

“Our grant does not fund student activities, student travels, and expenses. I had to ask for assistance in that area,” said Barbara Knotts, media services director and in charge of the Adelante Tejas grant, which is offered through the federal Title 5 program.

A Title 5 grant only covers expenses for faculty not students. President Robert Zeigler and the college executive team agreed to fund the students’ travel.

Students also will sample dragonfly larvae near the Rio Grande. The larval stage of dragonflies lives in the water. Dragonflies can spend up to five years of life in the larval form, eating and accumulating mercury.

“There are a lot of free-standing areas, and people don’t realize that they can contract the poison from the air, if so we have to figure out what levels they are and where,” Heckmann said, regarding the dragonfly larvae mercury levels that are in remote areas at Big Bend.

The group will spend their first night at the Hampton Inn in Alpine. Alpine is surrounded by mountains and is the region’s hub and a gateway to Big Bend. It has the highest number of historic adobe structures in Texas outside of El Paso.

The first night they will go on a ghost town tour in Terlingua.

Saturday they are headed toward the tip of southwest Texas at Big Bend.

That day, Heckmann said they will set up camp, cook out, bond and organize their dragonfly larvae expedition.

“When we camp, it is going to be so dark that we are going to be able to see the Milky Way, so that’s supposed to be pretty fun, too,” Llamas said.

Big Bend was recognized in 2012 as one of the only 10 places on the planet certified for dark sky stargazing.


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