A field trip to Big Bend National Park disappoints and rewards students.
By Monica Lamadrid
After a group photo on Sept. 27, seven excited students from this college traveled west to meet students at Sul Ross State University in Alpine for a biological adventure.
Biology Adjunct Holly Heckmann randomly selected seven students from a pool of 65 in a drawing Sept. 6 in the BioSpot to participate in the national citizen science project to collect dragonfly larvae.
Participants were nursing sophomores Kandice Weighmann, Matilde Vela, Jessie Fisher and Kira Amaya; sonography freshman Bianca Garza, physical therapy sophomore Jacob Westfall, liberal arts sophomore David Monsivais and biology sophomore Alfredo Paul Llamas.
Leslie Hopper, Adelante Tejas project director, invited Llamas.
Everyone was excited about the adventure. Most had never been in the park, and a few had never been camping, which made the trip both a project and a life experience.
After a couple of hours cramped in a van, Heckmann made the first stop at Cooper’s Barbeque near Junction.
“I can’t wait to stargaze,” Llamas said. “We will be able to see the Milky Way.”
Although they were looking forward to the trip, the students didn’t forget about homework for other classes. Garza and Vela spent most of the five-hour drive studying for upcoming tests while Heckmann used the time to grade papers.
After a night in a Hampton Inn, the group headed to Sul Ross State University. At the school, quick introductions to the half dozen Sul Ross students were followed by Hopper’s equipment review.
“Shoes that have laces or any way to keep them on so when you are walking in the mud, they are not going to get stuck are important,” she said. “You won’t believe the adhesive properties of the mud.”
After a two-hour drive through rain to Big Bend National Park, they made it to Beaver Pond, the sampling location, where David Larson, park ranger and chief of science and range management, and Dr. Chris Ritzi, chair of Sul Ross’ biology, geology and physical sciences department, were waiting.
Larson explained collection procedures and Ritzi described characteristics of dragonfly larvae.
“We are looking for dragonflies because they have bigger abdomens, which means they can store more nutrients and possibly more mercury, which is why we are all here,” he explained.
After reading collection procedures to the group, Larson clarified, “We have to be really careful with the handling because we don’t want to contaminate the samples.”
Six students from this college in two canoes set out to collect samples. The rest waded into the 3-foot deep pond to collect larvae from the muddy edges.
Monsivais excitedly announced a find and students and Ritzi ran to see, but it was a false alarm. Ritzi identified it as a damselfly larvae, not dragonfly. The damselfly has a smaller abdomen.
Three hours in, the students had seen dragonflies but no one found a good larvae specimen. Larson decided to end the search and head back to the campsite. Ritzi speculated that rains had forced larvae deep into the pond’s mud or larvae in the area had already matured.
Students and professors were disappointed but were happy about the experience and the opportunity to participate in a national project.Larson assured everyone there will be another chance, and students are invited to participate again.Though Larson did not have a date in mind, planning must wait for the government shutdown that began Tuesday to end and the national park to reopen.
Later that night, the students pitched tents and Sul Ross students prepared a meal. Everyone gathered at the table to stargaze and talk about the trip.
After a quick early breakfast Sunday, everyone was ready for a ghost town tour at Terlingua, ending at the cemetery where students parted company. During the drive back, students shared their trip experiences, especially the first-time canoers.
“Camping for the first time was really exciting,” Amaya said.
Vela added, “The whole experience was unique.”
Heckmann was grateful to be part of a national research project.
“Taking a bunch of city kids camping was my favorite part,” Heckmann said excitedly.
“I feel like a proud mom. This is a very rewarding, bonding experience.”