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Southwestern University Student, Professor To Spend Holidays Conducting Research In Uruguay

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For Southwestern University junior Brandon Boland and biology professor Romi Burks, this Christmas is going to be anything but typical.

Rather than spending the holiday relaxing with family members, the two will be in Uruguay conducting research that could provide insight on how to control an exotic, invasive aquatic snail that is causing problems in several bodies of water in the Houston area.

Burks has spent the past two and a half years studying an exotic population of Pomacea, a species of applesnail that literally grows to the size of apples. The snail is native to South American countries such as Uruguay, but probably made it to Texas through the aquarium trade. “When they are young, they can easily be mistaken for snails that people purchase for aquariums,” Burks said. “Someone probably had one that got too big for their aquarium and decided to put it in a bayou or backyard stream.”

Burks said female applesnails can produce 500 to 3,000 eggs at a time, so they can multiply rapidly. When the snails get into bayous or streams, they eat plants that have many important functions, including flood control and filtering water. Because these plants also produce oxygen, overpopulation of snails and subsequent loss of plants could force the bodies of water into a turbid state where algae would then dominate.

In the Houston area, Burks said there are several sites such as Armand Bayou Nature Center that are at an “early stage of invasion” by the applesnails. Burks hopes that by studying applesnails in their native environment, she can learn how they might function in Texas as well as predict what habitats are more susceptible to invasion.

Burks received a Mundy Faculty Fellowship from Southwestern University to fund the trip to Uruguay. She and Boland will use labs at the Universidad de la Republica Montevideo to conduct their research. Burks hopes she will collect enough data on the trip to enable her to apply for a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Boland has been working in Burks’ lab since the second semester of his sophomore year. For Boland, who is a Paideia Scholar at Southwestern, the trip will fulfill both his collaborative research requirement and his intercultural requirement. The junior biology major hopes to attend medical school after graduation.