The Saratoga Sun -

Standing up for the spineless

 


Young mussels, or glochidia, “look like really vicious Pac Men,” according to Dr. Lusha Tronstad, lead invertebrate zoologist for the University of Wyoming at Laramie. Tronstad was in Saratoga May 19 to deliver a 45-minute talk on crustaceans and mollusks as part of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s (WGFD) Habitat Speaker Series of free public lectures.

About 30 interested individuals, running the gamut from energetic toddlers to curious retirees, turned out to learn from the specialist. WGFD’s Aquatic Habitat Biologist Christina Barrineau and Terrestrial Habitat Biologist Katie Cheesbrough were both on hand at the presentation as well, but it was mainly Tronstad’s show.

For good reason. Tronstad is an infectiously enthusiastic presenter, spreading her love for and knowledge of invertebrates to the audience in equal parts. Having spent over six years doing field research in the Snowy Range Mountains, Tronstad is deeply familiar with the area’s mollusks, and crustaceans. Both mollusks and crustaceans are subsets of invertebrates. Mollusks are soft-bodied invertebrates with a shell and one “foot” (such as clams and snails) and crustaceans are a hard shelled type of arthropod with at least 10 pairs of legs (like crawfish or shrimp).

According to Tronstad, 99 percent of all animal species are invertebrates, and they account for 93 percent of the earth’s biomass. That means if the weight of all the world’s creatures was combined, spineless creatures would account for 93 percent of the total.

Over 3,000 species of invertebrates have been identified in Wyoming, Tronstad said, and she estimates there are still scores that remain unknown. “I’m working on that – and I think I’ll be working on that for the rest of my career,” she said. “You can go down to the lice on a prairie dog – there’s a lot of (invertebrates) out there.”

Tronstad said that, although in neighboring states 16 species of invertebrates have been listed as endangered, none are currently listed in Wyoming. Petitions are active to add five Wyoming species to the list – the western bumblebee, yellow banded bumblebee, regal fritillary, narrow-footed hygrotus diving beetle and monarch butterfly. Tronstad described herself as a neutral data collector who wants to give relevant agencies the best possible information to make decisions.

Getting that information can require some creativity. In order to track individual rocky mountain snail specimens, she said she and her daughter would mark the snails with “snail polish” – a dot of nail polish applied to the snail’s shell. Since the creatures are so slow-moving, averaging about 10 feet per week, Tronstad can frequently find those that she’s marked when returning to the same area weeks or even months later.

There simply aren’t enough scientists out there to collect all the data biologists want though, Tronstad told her audience. Increasingly, she said, researchers are turning to “citizen scientists” to crowd-source biological data points. That can mean reporting a monarch butterfly sighting at monarchsandmilkweed.org or doing field surveys for the Rocky Mountain Amphibian Project at toadtrackers.org.

Participating in these monitoring efforts doesn’t take extensive training or years of study, Tronstad said. Citizen scientists can provide invaluable information to researchers, however, and Tronstad hopes to engage many such volunteers in the years to come.

 

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