|Millsaps student Aubin St. Clair participated in field study last summer in Yucatán.|
|Millsaps student Rachel Hall became acquainted with harmless tarantulas and other wildlife as part of her field study in Yucatán.|
Harmless tarantulas, beetles, spider monkeys, iguanas, lizards and even a jaguar were all sometimes part of a day's work for Millsaps juniors Aubin St. Clair and Rachel Hall, who were Keck Research Fellows in the Yucatán Peninsula. They participated in research that combines interdisciplinary field experiences in Yucatán with laboratory analysis at Millsaps College's Keck Center for Instrumental and Biochemical Comparative Archaeology.
Keck Fellows are academically promising students who receive prestigious fellowships funded by the Keck Foundation and Millsaps College. While in Yucatán, St. Clair and Hall helped Dr. Markus Tellkamp, assistant professor of biology, with vegetation and wildlife research, as well as an ethno botanical study with a local Mayan plant expert. As director of biological research and education on the reserve, Tellkamp conducts research and guides students in ecological research and tropical ecology field methods.
As field assistants, their work included checking mist nets for birds (and sometimes bats), collecting and recording data of bird species caught, in addition to banding them. Tasked with gathering various medicinal and toxic plants, the students helped catalog and press them while learning about each one along the way.
Researchers and field assistants encountered harmless tarantulas, colored beetles and spider monkeys, in addition to exotic amphibians, such as the unusual Mexican Burrowing Toad. Large lizards, such as the Serrated Casquehead Iguana, and birds, like the Thicket Tinamou and Barred Antshrike, were among many spotted. Photo images from a camera trap, a still camera set and timed to photograph wildlife, documented brocket deer and various mammals.
Tellkamp describes the photo of a jaguar as the most significant animal finding yet, not only due to the sighting itself, but because of what the female jaguar's presence signifies. "Female jaguars don't range as widely as males," said Tellkamp. "The presence of a female jaguar is an indication that this portion of the reserve may be a breeding ground. Our image is the first photographic evidence we have of jaguars on the reserve."
Hall said the best thing about the trip for her was the jaguar. "I went there with an interest in large cats, as I am hoping to become a zoo veterinarian, and I was absolutely thrilled that I was there when they got photographic evidence of a female jaguar, the first jaguar to be recorded in ten years."
St. Clair's travel to Yucatán was preceded by another captivating trip - a field biology class with Assistant Professor of Biology Dr. Debora Mann to the Galápagos Islands, a group of islands that are part of Ecuador. Though an earnest student of the sciences, St. Clair discovered new things through field work. "I never realized how much patience you have to have to work out in the field. Nature documentaries are all well and good, but they only show action, action, action - not the long lulls in between. And your timing has to be perfect; the mist nets have to be opened and closed at certain times, and if there's rain the nets must be up. No laziness. Because if you don't do it, no one else will," she explained. "I'm glad I got to see the realistic side of field work."
Attending Millsaps and having travel opportunities has broadened horizons for Hall, a biology major whose initial career goal was small animal veterinary. "After going to Millsaps, not only did I become far more aware of how many options were there (such as field biology and zoo veterinary careers) but also all the schools that I could go to. I never expected to be able to attend a school like Millsaps, mostly for financial reasons, but Millsaps was able to offer me scholarships to fund the incredible education I am receiving. The biology and chemistry departments are more than encouraging, and all the professors make themselves available to their students for advice," she said.
At Millsaps, St. Clair is pursuing a major in biology and a minor in communications. She hopes to combine the two by writing about her fieldwork, and the work of other biologists and archaeologists, in ways that bring the stories to life for non-scientists.
Archaeologists and students are drawn to Yucatán for its Mayan marvels, said Tellkamp. Millsaps College and its nonprofit organization Kaxil Kiuic supports and operates a 4,000-acre tropical forest bio-cultural reserve in the heart of the Yucatán peninsula. The Helen Moyers Bio-cultural Reserve, with its biological and archaeological resources, serves as the center of Millsaps' Living in Yucatán Program that offers courses in archaeology, art, business, computer science, ecology, education, geology, history, literature, math and socio-cultural anthropology. Facilities include an off-the-grid Center for Research and Learning; a laboratory and research facility in the Maya town of Oxkutzcab; and the Center for Business and Culture, a dormitory and classroom facility in Merida developed by the Millsaps Else School of Management.
The Keck Laboratory at Millsaps, to which St. Clair and Hall will contribute plant samples, is funded by a three-year grant. The College uses this grant to purchase sophisticated research equipment, which supports faculty and student research teams in addressing complex archaeological inquiries and analytics.