Call of the Wild: Frogs, birds, and all of nature intrigue this professor

Eran Kilpatrick

Eran Kilpatrick examines a yellow-bellied slider turtle in the Great Swamp Sanctuary before letting it go.

Many people might not realize this, but every frog species has a distinctive call that sets it apart from other frogs. Dr. Eran Kilpatrick, assistant professor of biology at USC Salkehatchie, can identify each of the 30 frog species native to South Carolina, just by their call. That comes in handy when he researches the movement of amphibians throughout the state as part of a project that hopes to help society understand the effect our changing world has on nature. Kilpatrick is one of two state coordinators for the North American Amphibian Monitoring Program (NAAMP) in South Carolina, and he received a $10,000 Research Opportunity Program (ROP) grant from the University this year to conduct research as part of that project. He and other volunteers travel predetermined sample routes across the state during three specified sample windows to listen for those frog calls. The participants report which frog species were heard at which sampling points each time and also note any visible changes to the area since the last visit, such as construction, clearing, or fires. The project’s long-term goal is to monitor frog populations at a local, state, and regional level. NAAMP is part of a U.S. Geological Survey national effort, and South Carolina was the 26th state to join. The third statewide sampling window opened in May, and Kilpatrick said even this early in the project, he is excited by the results. “I can tell we’re going to get some good baseline data,” he says. “There has been no other study in South Carolina that has inventoried frogs across the state in one season. This will give us the ability to do that long-term, to have data to compare one year to the next.” The ROP grant provided Kilpatrick with a field vehicle that he can use for collecting samples for this project and other field research efforts. Before that grant, he primarily used a standard University vehicle, but was afraid that the small state car would get stuck in a muddy area, or damaged in some way. On a small campus like Salkehatchie, where professors depend on those cars to commute between the East and West campuses, that could be a major inconvenience. He says the NAAMP study is important because it will help scientists understand how changes in habitat affect frog populations. For example, some of the sampling sites are near construction, newly paved areas, or land managed for timber. According to Kilpatrick, the data he and others gather will be used to quantify how frog populations change over time. The NAAMP program is not the only research in which Kilpatrick is involved. He has also been asked to work with a lodge in Allendale to develop a biological inventory on the 7,000-acre property. That inventory will include plants, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and small mammals. The owners are developing an ecotourism component to their business, and Kilpatrick’s work will determine whether any species with special interest, such as rare species or ones with conservation status, are present on the property. The inventory can also be used to develop spotting guides and other materials for Eco tourists who visit the lodge. “Besides public boat landings, there are not many opportunities for the public to get to and explore the Savannah River and surrounding habitats in Allendale County,” says Kilpatrick. “Once this project is developed, this will be an opportunity to see a unique region of the Savannah River, which is a brown-water river as opposed to a black-water river, like all of the other rivers in the Greater Salkehatchie Region.” He also routinely goes into the rivers, swamps, and other locations throughout the region to gather samples for personal study, everything from turtles and fish to plants. His love for the process is easy to see, from the time he pulls on waders and sloshes into a beaver pond to check traps to the time he counts the turtles and fish collected overnight, then lets them go. Even when walking along the path in Walterboro’s Great Swamp Sanctuary, he identifies birds by their calls without a second thought, just as part of the conversation. The young professor says that has always been part of his routine that he turns everyday walks on the beach or drives along the highway into personal tests to identify as much of what he sees and hears as he can. Because he wants to generate that same love for exploratory learning in his students, he also takes students on field trips to the Great Swamp Sanctuary, Edisto Beach, or the S.C. mountains. According to Kilpatrick, he and other professors can provide students with these specialized learning opportunities because of the small class sizes at USC Salkehatchie. If the classes were larger, it would be impossible. “We’ve got these tremendous resources here, and I think we should use them,” he says. “Students need to be aware of what they have right here, of the world around them. There are not too many colleges in this state that can take their Biology 101 and 102 students on field trips like this … People do not have to be scientists to appreciate nature, and it always amazes me how much most people like to learn about science when they can see it. Getting the general public to care about living things is the driving force behind wildlife conservation.” His love for research grew during his time as an undergraduate biology student at USC Aiken and continued throughout his master’s and doctoral study at Clemson. His personal interests focus on the response of reptiles, amphibians, birds, small mammals, and vascular plants to forest-management practices such as prescribed burning. He has conducted research in a variety of terrestrial and wetland habitat types in the Coastal Plain, Piedmont, and Blue Ridge physiographic provinces. “I enjoy research because it gives me a chance to learn and transfer knowledge,” says Kilpatrick. “I love learning, and I follow the old saying, ‘the more you learn, the more you realize you do not know.’ Research gives me an opportunity to further my understanding of how living things interact with their surroundings. Trying to understand how an organism interacts with other living and nonliving things is very complex, but something that has always interested me. … Research gives me a way to communicate my knowledge of nature to other people and make a significant contribution to the field of science. A person can spend a lifetime learning on their own, but if they do not communicate their knowledge, what good does that do?”