New Mexico Highlands University biology professor Sarah Corey-Rivas presents a free public talk “Thinking Evolutionarily: New Tools for Amphibian Conservation” April 4 at 12 p.m. in Burris Hall room 129, 903 National Ave.
The university’s chapter of Sigma Xi, a scientific research society, is sponsoring the talk. Light refreshments will be served.
“Amphibians are called canaries of the coal mine because they are early indicators of environmental problems,” Corey-Rivas said. “Globally there are 6,000-plus species of amphibians and approximately 42 percent of these are either declining or near extinction, giving them the highest extinction rate of any vertebrate.
“Amphibians like frogs and salamanders have permeable skin that absorbs toxins, so they’re very susceptible to human-caused changes like pollution. Amphibians need two habitats — water and land — putting them in double jeopardy,” Corey-Rivas said.
She said that no matter what the ecosystem targeted for study and conservation, when important species like amphibians are lost it causes a domino effect with loss of other key species that feed on the amphibians.
“We have a global extinction process underway with wholesale decline of related species, called clades,” Corey-Rivas said.
Corey-Rivas earned her Ph.D. in evolution and ecology from Ohio State University, with her dissertation focusing on amphibian vulnerability to extinction. She joined the Highlands University faculty in 2010, and teaches courses like molecular ecology, general biology, and honors seminar.
Corey-Rivas’ research is widely published in scientific journals, and focuses on conservation genetics, landscape ecology and amphibians. Her recent research includes New Mexico species of concern like bison and leopard frogs.
“The bulk of my training is in molecular ecology with a focus on evolutionary trees, a biologists’ version of a pedigree,” Corey-Rivas said. “An evolutionary tree is a diagram showing relatedness of species over time.”
“In the conservation field, I promote new investigatory tools including evolutionary trees, which can be used to determine threats to related species, and to diversity of lineages in the tree of life. Evolutionary concepts like these have great promise for conservation as predictive tools for vulnerable groups of amphibians before they are gone,” Corey-Rivas said.
She said molecular ecology uses genetic methods to better understand an ecological problem.
At Highlands, Corey-Rivas and fellow biology professor and husband Jesus Rivas established a Molecular Ecology Lab, where students have opportunities for original research on amphibians, reptiles and bison through a partnership with Wind River Ranch.
The 4,500-acre nonprofit ranch west of Watrous, N.M. on the Mora River works to conserve wild landscapes through ecological restoration, research and education.
“For me, the richest scientific experiences I had were doing ecology fieldwork,” Corey-Rivas said. “As a biology professor, I think the most important thing is for my students to be inspired by the natural world through a healthy dose of both fieldwork and lab analysis.”
The pair of Highlands University biologists have international reputations for their groundbreaking research on anacondas, the largest snake in the world.
“We’ve combined Jesus’ 20 years of field research on anacondas with my expertise in molecular ecology,” Corey-Rivas said.
In 2011, the two professors led a team of student researchers from Highlands to the Venezuelan Llanos to study anacondas and other species. They’re pursuing grant funding to return to the Llanos with their students later this year.