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Thanksgiving in Uruguay

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    Colin Kyle and James McDonough pack supplies to take on their trip to Uruguay.

Two students and a biology professor will be spending Thanksgiving week conducting research in Uruguay

Southwestern students Colin Kyle and James McDonough won’t be going home for Thanksgiving this year. But they’re not complaining. 

That’s because the two of them have to opportunity to spend the holiday in Uruguay, where they will give poster presentations about their research on applesnails to an international scientific community and conduct additional field research. 

Kyle and McDonough will spend two weeks in Punta del Esta, Uruguay, a small town on the Atlantic coast about 90 km from the capital city of Montevideo. They will present their research at the International Shallow Lakes Conference, which is being held in the town Nov. 23-28. During the conference, and for the week after, they will conduct field work in shallow lakes near Punta del Esta. They also plan to drive to northern Uruguay to collect samples of applesnails that live there. 

The two senior biology majors both conduct collaborative research in the Aquatic Ecology Lab of Professor Romi Burks. They have spent the past several years helping Burks with her research on two species of Pomacea, applesnails that literally grow to the size of apples. The native range of both snail species point to South American countries such as Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil.  Pomacea insularum, which has made it to Texas, definitely occurs in Brazil but may be in northern Uruguay as well.  In Texas, this species causes problems in several bodies of water in the Houston area. 

Burks’ research focuses on ways to control this invasive species. Kyle and McDonough have made numerous trips with Burks to Armand Bayou Nature Center in Houston, which is suffering from an early stage of applesnail invasion. They presented papers about their research to the Texas Academy of Sciences meeting last spring. 

In Uruguay, they will continue research the team has done with P. insularum in Houston and in the lab at Southwestern by asking the same type of questions about the applesnail species native to Uruguay, P. canaliculata. This research involves studying surfaces on which applesnails prefer to lay their eggs.  One experiment compares round vs. flat surfaces and short vs. tall surfaces because round, or circular surfaces more likely reflect plants, while flat surfaces would indicate man-made materials. 

“In terms of spread, we want to see whether urban construction affects the egg-laying habits of exotic snails compared to closely related snails in a native habitat,” Burks said. 

In Uruguay, the students will create pens in areas where applesnails are living and add man-made surfaces to the pens. They will then see whether the snails lay their eggs on native plants or the man-made surfaces. They will then compare this data to what they have from Texas. 

For his honors thesis in biology, Kyle plans on developing a calculus-based equation to estimate the number of eggs in a clutch. He hopes to pursue graduate studies in quantitative ecology. McDonough would like to apply to medical school. 

Although Kyle and McDonough will be returning to Southwestern in time to take their final exams, Burks will remain in South America until Jan. 11. She plans to go on to Argentina to collect some samples for a project she is working on with another student, Olivia Stanzer. Burks and Stanzer want to study whether the protein that makes applesnail eggs pink serves as a warning for predators not to eat them. A biochemist from CONICET, a national laboratory in Argentina, has isolated the protein that Burks and Stanzer would need for this research. 

Burks received a Cullen Faculty Fellowship and a Mundy Faculty Fellowship from Southwestern to fund the upcoming trip. This research trip marks the second time she has taken students to Uruguay. She took 2007 graduate Brandon Boland there over the holiday break in 2005.