St. Martin’s students help with ‘newt commute’ at Lacey ponds

Apr 29, 2022, 5:55 PM
One of the students holding a newt. (St. Martin's University)...
One of the students holding a newt. (St. Martin's University)
(St. Martin's University)

A group of biology students at St. Martin’s University in Lacey found a way to bring the lessons of the classroom out to the field — and help some small amphibians along the way.

The City of Lacey and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife had set up fences around a set of ponds near the St. Martin’s campus, to keep an invasive species, the African clawed frog, from spreading.

But Megan Friesen, an assistant professor of biology at St. Martin’s, said the fences had an unintended consequence for a native species of newts.

“The newts go into freshwater — they migrate there annually to reproduce,” she said. “And those fences were causing a barrier that was preventing them from getting into the ponds to reproduce.”

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Friesen says this is exactly the kind of question her students study in her conservation biology class.

“This seemed kind of just like a really interesting conversation conundrum where we are trying to prevent the invasion of a potentially harmful predator, but in doing so causing harm to a native amphibian,” she said.

So Friesen asked her conservation biology students if they wanted to help. The students responded enthusiastically — and for weeks, they’ve been acting as a kind of ‘taxi cab’ for the newts. In their free time, the students are going out and picking the newts up by hand, carrying them over the fences to the ponds in buckets, and gently releasing them into the water.

“They have been going out almost every day of the week and walking the perimeter of those fences, collecting newts that are trying to get into the pond to breed and carrying them over,” she said.

Since early March, the biology students have helped about a thousand newts with their ‘commute.’

The newt migration is starting to slow a little now, and soon the students will get out for summer vacation — but a few research students staying in Lacey have already pledged to monitor the newts over the summer, just in case there are any more than need help jumping the fence.

For the students, Friesen says it’s been great to see up-close and personal the dilemmas that conservationists face. And for about a thousand newts, it has meant the chance to start a family.

“This is a really cool way for our students to be able to see firsthand some of the things we’ve been learning about in class — and to also make an actual difference,” Friesen said.

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St. Martin’s students help with ‘newt commute’ at Lacey ponds