For hours, senior biology major Isabella Bukovich watched lizards in a maze. The observations she made helped her meet the goal of her research — to solve the problem of the invasive black and white tegu lizard species that’s threatening native bird and reptile species in Florida and Georgia.
Bukovich wasn’t always exposed to herpetofauna — amphibians and reptiles — or “herps” for short. It wasn’t until her family moved from Alaska to Virginia when she was 10, she said, that she became interested in snakes and lizards.
“That passion started when I was really young,” Bukovich said. “I was always just going outside in the woods catching and collecting snakes, frogs and lizards and studying them.”
Bukovich said her interest in biology brought her to JMU because the university offers many research opportunities for undergraduate students. She said she’s worked with other students and biology professor Rocky Parker in the “Parker lab” on several different projects. This includes her tegu lizard research, which was published Aug. 12 with her as a co-lead author in the peer reviewed journal PLOS ONE.
Argentine black and white tegus are native to South America but have invaded the southern U.S. because of people who keep them as pets and exotic animal breeders. They’re omnivores that generally grow to 3 or 4 feet long, and Bukovich said they’re great at finding eggs, which threatens native species that have lower nesting grounds.
Bukovich’s research explored the chemical ecology of tegus — specifically their ability to recognize members of the same species. Parker said a $51,000 collaborative grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture allowed his lab to partner with the National Wildlife Research Center (NWRC) in Florida for this research. The NWRC sent videos of tegus in Y-mazes that Bukovich observed, and she identified the tegus’ specific behaviors like tongue flicks, pauses and turns. Bukovich said she discovered that female tegus are better than males at identifying conspecific scents, or scents belonging to the same species.
“Most people that study reptile chemical communication and how they look for mates have focused on males because males are the ones who have the highest degree of searching,” Parker said. “Turns out that’s not true for tegus.”
The research she conducted, Bukovich said, can help manage the tegu problem because it could aid in informing and creating capture methods. Senior biology major Emily Thompson, another Parker lab member, said she’s proud to see Bukovich’s success. She said she’s known Bukovich since their freshman year, and that they’ve grown together as scientists.
“We’ve been reading papers about snakes and tegus all of college, and now there’s one with her name on it,” Thompson said. “That’s crazy to me.”
Bukovich emphasized that what set the Parker lab apart from other biology labs was the “sense of camaraderie” between its members. She said she’s working with junior biology major Lauren Nazarian on a project similar to her tegu research — this time about Burmese pythons, which are also invading Florida. Because they are similarly analyzing behavioral data of Burmese pythons in Y-mazes, Nazarian said Bukovich’s guidance has been helpful because of her prior experience studying the tegus.
“Isabella deserves every bit of recognition and praise that she gets,” Nazarian said. “She’s incredibly detail-oriented, focused and I think one of the most hard-working people I’ve ever met.”
Bukovich’s discovery didn’t come without difficulty. She said many of the original analyses had to be redone because they were wrong. Parker said this was because the window of observation wasn’t correct for some of the trials, and he added that it was because of miscommunication on his part. These challenges taught her the importance of the integrity of scientific data, she said, which made her a “better scientist overall.”
Bukovich is continuing to work on the Burmese python research, she said, in addition to research on red-sided garter snakes for her honor’s thesis. She said she plans to graduate this semester.
“Seeing her graduate is going to be really hard for me,” Parker said. “I don't think I'll ever have a student like her.”
Contact Kamryn Koch at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.