Castleton University student Jessica Ralston and Assistant Professor of Biology Dr. Christine Palmer could be found 200 feet above the ground this past holiday break, as they visited the jungles of Panama for research.
While the rest of the world welcomed in the New Year, the professor-student pair joined a Dartmouth College-based research group to Barro Colorado, an island in the middle of the Panama Canal, to collect and study katydids, an insect similar to crickets.
“This is our pilot study right now to get an idea of what we can do and if our methods are successful we’ll be able to continue and build a bigger base of data,” said Ralston, a junior Biology major concentrating in Ecological and Evolutionary Studies.
Working alongside Dr. Laurel Symes in collaboration with Dr. Hannah ter Hofstede, the lead investigators at Dartmouth, the grant-based partnership allowed the group to live and work at a Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.
Katydids range from one to six inches in size, and unlike their cousins in North America who make calls to their mates for hours on end, the katydids in the tropics speak for about only two seconds a night.
“They don't speak that much because there’s a lot more predators to prey on them, so what we think is that if we can get an idea of their diet, that will give us a clue where they might exist in the forest,” said Ralston.
The goal of the research was to study DNA from the digestive tract of various sized and shaped katydids and determine where they are living, through what they eat.
“Our goal is to extract DNA from their stomachs then we get into really hard-core science,” said Ralston, who hopes that this information will hint at how katydids find mates with little verbal communication. “We then amplify the DNA and will pretty much be able to figure out what type of plant species they are specifically eating.”
While the researchers from Dartmouth focused on the behaviors of these insects, Palmer and Ralston were tasked with adding a molecular component to the research.
Ralston was able to make the trip through Castleton’s Faculty-Student Research grant. The opportunity was not only a learning experience, but her involvement could open many doors in her desired field of work.
“She's killed it in her classes, she’s a phenomenal student and she has the perfect mental outlook for this,” said Palmer. “The research experience is what gets our students into jobs and into future career paths because that’s what people are looking for.”
As the project continues, the frozen katydids were brought back from Panama and will be studied by the pair here at Castleton with reagents provided by Dartmouth.