On a side of Mill Mountain, Katie Horn turns rocks, sifts through leaf litter and peeks under limbs.
Suddenly she sees what she’s looking for.
“Worm snake,” she shouts.
Four of her Virginia Tech classmates converge to take a look at the tiny creature. This is the kind of animal they’re searching for in Mill Mountain Park.
The group of Tech students — who make up a conservation biology class — is working to measure animal populations in the more than 600-acre park, in partnership with the city of Roanoke.
The class is using 11 game cameras to monitor mammal species, as well as scouring through eight plots where crawling animals live to search for reptiles and amphibians over the course of the spring semester.
The students said they’ve captured a number of animals on camera including deer, squirrels, raccoons and coyotes. They’ve also documented a multitude of snakes and salamanders in the park. The cameras capture a number of people and dogs, too.
The animals found there are a good indication of the ecological health of the park, the students said.
The more species’ diversity discovered, the healthier the ecosystem. Certain salamanders found in streams, like the ones they discovered last week, indicate good water quality, student Stefanie Cooke said.
Hopefully, other student groups or biologists can use similar methods to monitor Mill Mountain’s animals to see how populations change over time.
“We’ve got a good baseline project for now,” student Dominique Negron said. “Future teams can pick up and run with it.”
Measuring species in highly used areas is important for public outreach and understanding the nature around people, said Sarah Karpanty, a fish and wildlife professor.
“I’ve always wanted to know about the populations on this mountain,” Karpanty, who lives in Roanoke, said. “We all want to know about what’s in our backyard.”
Karpanty said she hoped some of the pictures and information collected would be used in the Mill Mountain Park’s Discovery Center to teach people about the land around them.
Working with students from Tech was a natural fit, said Michael Clark, Roanoke Parks and Recreation director. As the city is looking forward to developing a management plan for the park, knowing what species can be found where will be important for determining factors, such as where trails can be located.
A population analysis of the animals on Mill Mountain is unprecedented, Clark said. The students wrote a new protocol and came up with unique methods to scour the mountain.
He was also happy to help the Tech students gain experience, he said. Because he previously knew Karpanty, he said he thought the students would do a good job.
“It’s mutually beneficial,” Clark said. “We knew they’d do a quality project.”
Getting experience in the field is incredibly important for students, Karpanty said.
The students agreed. They don’t necessarily all have their jobs figured out, but coordinating a project that measures populations for a city will benefit them no matter what job they pursue.
“This is great real world experience,” Horn said.