A group of Mesa high school students is delving deep into the genetic makeup of one of Arizona's threatened species and surfacing with findings that could excite the broader scientific community.
Students at the Arizona Agribusiness and Equine Center, a public charter high school in east Mesa, began a research project this year involving the Chiricahua leopard frog, a species in decline in Arizona for years that is now federally protected.
Teacher Michael Brown was approached by the Phoenix Zoo about getting involved in the conservation efforts surrounding the frog.
Brown carefully chose five students who would take the care needed to embark on such an important project. One of those students is 16-year-old Taylor Lasley, who said she's gaining experience she plans to someday apply to a career.
"I want to do conservation work when I go and get a job, and I just decided this would be a great start," she said. "I love doing the actual research and I love being able to learn exactly what everything is. When you're talking to scientists you can be really lost if you don't know their language."
Lasley has volunteered at the Adobe Mountain WildLife Center. She's not sure if she'll go into the field of genetics but would love to be doing field work with some species, maybe even in the rain forest, she said.
Essentially, what the students are doing is creating primers, strands of nucleic acid that serve as the starting point for replicating DNA, and then using a device that basically photocopies the DNA. This gives scientists exponentially more samples on which to conduct experiments. It also tells a lot about the genetic makeup of the frog.
Brown says the implications of this research is that people at the zoo, for example, could look at the genetics of the frogs and determine which ones to breed. They wouldn't want to breed frogs that had bred too closely in the past and weren't necessarily healthy, Brown said.
"They could see, by looking at this research, how successful they could be in trying to restore the frogs to their habitats."
Paula Swanson, manager of reptiles at the zoo, works closely with the Chiricahua leopard frog.
Much of her job consists of receiving frog eggs from the few ponds where they are found in Arizona and seeing them through their tadpole stage into small frogs that can be released into the wild.
Both the Arizona Department of Game and Fish and federal wildlife programs are working on ways to preserve not just this frog but thousands of other amphibians. More about the recovery plan can be found at www.fws.gov/southwest/es/arizona.
This specific frog's decline was accelerated by the introduction of three predators: the American bullfrog and crayfish, which eat the frog or its food sources; and a fungal disease that eats the skin off the amphibian, said Tara Sprankle, senior reptile keeper at the zoo.
"It's the fishers who introduced these animals that are not native to Arizona," Sprankle said. "They use them as bait and then they're trying to be nice to the animals by releasing them, never realizing these frogs here never evolved with them around."
Preserving this species is important in the way that preserving any frog species native to the state would be, Sprankle said. Frogs control numerous insects and are part of nature's food chain.
"They're an important part of the life cycle here," she said. This particular species is found along the Mogollon Rim and in southern Arizona near the Chiricahua Mountains.
The conservation efforts of the zoo, the game and fish department and students like those in Brown's class are relatively new, Sprankle said.
"We haven't done a whole lot," she said. "But we are focused on raising the animals for reintroduction. The eggs come to us right out of the wild and go to Game and Fish which takes them right back into the wild."
Lasley said knowing how delicate the work is can be awe-inspiring.
"This project really opened my eyes to exactly how endangered these frogs are and how endangered other amphibians are. In the case of this frog, they're only found in six or seven ponds in the world. In all, 2,000 species of amphibians are endangered. Many people don't get to see hands-on what they are doing to the environment and these animals, but this project has helped it really sink in."
Because the frogs are threatened, strict rules apply to being able to handle a frog, even a dead one, in order to study it.
Brown believes his students are pioneering a method of DNA extraction from the very tip of the tale of the tadpole, which hopefully can be done with no harm to the frog.
Brown is hoping he and his students can begin publishing their research findings and have set their eyes on a big goal of presenting at the annual Plant and Animal Genome Conference in San Diego next year.