KOKOMO, Ind. — The students gather in the parking lot, sharing cans of insect repellant and sunscreen. Despite temperatures in the mid-70s, they’re dressed in long pants, boots, and hats, carrying backpacks.
They follow a trail through tall grass into the woods, stepping carefully onto ground thick with mud and slick with fallen brown leaves. They pick their way through muddy areas until finally reaching a spot with a deep puddle, giving up and stepping into the muck. One girl gets stuck, in the thick, sucking mud, while another steps out of her shoe trying to extricate herself from the mess.
Finally, they reach their goal — a clear, rock-filled stream, that, at first glance, appears to hold no animal life, at least until they start lifting the rocks and logs.
The area around the stream is home to hundreds of red back and two-lined salamanders, and these Indiana University Kokomo students are determined to find them.
Michael Finkler, professor of physiology, leads the group of eight students in this fieldwork, today at the Mississenewa Reservoir, in Miami County, and the Asherwood Environmental Center, in Wabash County.
Later in the semester, students in his Biology of Amphibians and Reptiles class will research at Morgan Monroe State Forest, McCormick’s Creek State Park, Kankakee Sands, and the Indianapolis Zoo. Finkler said the class uses a “flipped” instructional model, meaning most learning takes place in the field, rather than in a classroom.
“When you get wet and dirty, and get your adrenaline going, it’s addictive,” Finkler said. “That’s why classes like this are important. They invoke that interest in nature, and curiosity. It gives students a feeling for the hidden worlds. There’s so much of nature that’s really hidden from us.”
While salamanders are among the most abundant amphibians in the area, he said, people don’t usually see them unless they are looking for them.
“They go to great lengths to stay out of sight,” he said.
Future veterinarian Jenna Crowder was amazed that such a small creature can live in such a rugged area, with all the raccoons and other animals around.
She and the other students walk upstream in the water, stopping to gently lift rocks and logs to peer underneath for salamanders.
“It’s exciting, actually being able to get off the trail, and being able to identify what I find, instead of guessing,” said Crowder, a junior from Westfield. “One of my dreams is to own a wildlife rehabilitation center, and this would help me be able to identity different reptile species.”
Finkler hopes to find a water snake, and asks students to let him know if they find one.
“If I see a snake, you’ll all know it,” one student calls back, laughing.
Zak Brainard finds one of the first salamanders of the day, under a rock at the edge of the stream. The class gathers around, and Finkler shares information about the two-lined salamander. Brainard takes a picture of the salamander next to the measuring guide in his field book, and then gently puts the rock back as he found it, releasing the salamander next to it.
He grew up hunting for salamanders in a creek near his home, and plans a career that allows him to work outside.
“It’s nice to actually have a class that is so definitely in the area I want to be in as a career,” he said. “It helps you learn more, seeing it instead of just talking about it or seeing pictures. I look for classes with a lot of fieldwork, that specialize is going out and doing things, instead of just sitting in a classroom.”
Savannah Harvey, from Peru, admitted she wasn’t as excited about touching salamanders at first, but she enjoyed hunting for and finding them.
“I’ve never seen so many of them before,” she said. “Salamanders are fun to look at. I never knew there were so many species of salamanders, snakes, and frogs in Indiana.”
She surprised herself by holding a garter snake.
“I’m afraid of snakes and frogs,” she said. “I really enjoyed this experience. I didn’t think it would be so much fun. You learn a lot more working in the field than in the classroom.”
At the Asherwood Environmental Science Center, their quarry is frogs, tadpoles, turtles, and water snakes. Students explore several ponds, venturing into the water and cattails at the water’s edge, skimming beneath the surface with nets.
In one area filled with murky brown water, they find lots of tadpoles, along with tiny toads, smaller than a dime.
In addition to learning lessons in animal biology, they’re also learning practical lessons that will serve them well if they continue in fieldwork –such as how to dress appropriately in long pants, and how to avoid poison ivy and other plants that will cause a rash or reaction.
“I have wanted to teach a class like this for years,” said Finkler. “Most of my classes are in a lab, or lecturing. This is the first time I’ve had a course where I could focus on fieldwork. This is the kind of class that creates a lifetime interest in learning more about these animals.”