Quest for discovery Dr. Tom Lee takes biology students to Ecuador in search of new species

Daisy Gomez, left, and Maya Feller have joined Dr. Tom Lee in his search for new rodent species in the mountains of Ecuador.

Two senior biology students are taking field research to the mountains of Ecuador this month as they search for new species of rodents with Dr. Tom Lee.

Lee, chair of the biology department, already participated in the discovery of four new species in previous trips to Ecuador. This summer, seniors Maya Feller and Daisy Gomez have accompanied Lee to Loja, the southernmost part of Ecuador, to search for more species.

“In Ecuador there’s so little known about the ecology, and we don’t even know all the species,” Lee said.

Both Feller and Gomez prepared for the trip on campus through research projects and field research classes. They traveled with Lee’s mammalogy class to the Big Bend National Park where they learned how to set traps and process animal specimens.

“I love being outdoors, and I’ve always had a passion for animals,” Feller said.

Feller, a biology major from Statesville, N.C., plans to apply to graduate programs and continue conducting field research on mammals, especially carnivores.

Gomez, a biology major from El Paso, said although she’s always lived in a city, she wants more firsthand experience with wildlife before she applies for graduate programs.

“Anytime I go outside, I always get really excited,” Gomez said.

For one month in Ecuador, the students will experience the cold, wet climate of the Andes mountains, staying in a cabin or tent while they conduct research. First, they will search for traces of rodents such as runways, which are paths the animals make, and record data about the species’ habitats. Then they will set traps in the runways or in water to catch water rats.

Once they gather the specimens, they will use alcohol and preservatives to process the rodents as museum preps. Museum preps are compact, uniform and numbered for reference. When they return to campus, Lee and the students will study the skeleton and DNA material, comparing it to other species.

“The world is very complex, and there are lots of things to learn,” Lee said. “Since we don’t even know what’s there, it’s hard to make an argument that something should be conserved, so this work can help with the conservation of animals.”