Not easy being green

When Melissa Pilgrim's undergraduate students suit up for research, they don't reach for white lab coats and safety glasses. Instead, they don waders, battery-powered headlamps and lots of bug spray before heading into damp woodlands after dusk.

Welcome to USC Upstate's chapter of the North American Amphibian Monitoring Program — a citizen-scientist project that's both demanding and rewarding.

"This is often their start in undergraduate research," said Pilgrim, an associate professor of biology and director of research at the Spartanburg campus. "They learn data collection, data entry and data management skills in a project like this, and then they might rotate into more senior projects."

The U.S. Geological Survey developed the North American Amphibian Monitoring Program in response to the issue of global amphibian decline. Amphibians are among the world's fastest-declining species.

Pilgrim joined the project in 2008 and has recruited dozens of students since then to monitor 11 routes in seven counties in the Upstate area. Each route includes 10 monitoring points, and each must be checked at least three times per year, in winter, spring and early summer. Students catalog weather and noise conditions and record calling activity for five minutes at each stop. Students also are taught how to differentiate among the cacophony of nighttime sounds to distinguish the calls of various frogs, including green and gray tree frogs. They must pass a national exam before beginning the nocturnal surveys.

"We have game nights where the students compete to see who is most accurate in picking out the calls," said Pilgrim, who often bakes a batch of cookies for the winning prize.

Because they're out late at night in remote areas, students use a buddy system in case they encounter trouble of any kind. Mostly, though, their biggest threats are mosquitoes, leeches and the occasional stuck car.

"I've had sheriff's deputies get the biggest laugh when they ask what we're doing out in the boondocks late at night, and I explain to them we're listening to frog calls," Pilgrim said.

But the last laugh belongs to several of Pilgrim's students. One of the previous volunteers has just started a Ph.D. program in amphibian conservation. Several more are coauthors with Pilgrim on what will be the group's first peer-reviewed paper, to be submitted this fall. Another student, now graduated, developed an automated computer recognizer that picks out calling tree frogs from field recordings.

At this point in the project, there are no definite indications of amphibian decline in the Upstate, Pilgrim said, but changes are occurring. "We have to get more data to see whether there is a decline in our area," she said. "But we're definitely encountering species that typically are found only south of here."

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