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  • Writer's pictureDave Daversa

Salamander morphology and undergraduate research

Green, E.T., Dell, A.I., Crawford, J.A., Biro, E.G. and Daversa, D.R., 2024. Trait variation in patchy landscapes: Morphology of spotted salamanders (Ambystoma maculatum) varies more within ponds than between ponds. Plos one, 19(4), p.e0299101.

Undergraduate research is largely a student learning tool, but when done well, it can also make real contributions to science. Our new paper, published last week in PLOS ONE, is a case example. This study was a summer internship project by Elizabeth Green, who joined our research group at the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center (NGRREC) in Alton, Illinois in the summer of 2016. In addition to assisting my behavioral experiments of spotted salamanders (Ambystoma maculatum), Elizabeth did a side project examining the morphology – length, mass, shape – of larval salamanders in ponds just east of St. Louis. We drove and hiked to natural and constructed ponds and collected up to one-hundred larval salamanders from each. Elizabeth developed a system for rapidly photographing salamanders, an assembly line of plexiglass tanks that kept the larvae perfectly erect by removing their ability to turn. She used the images to systematically measure morphological traits.  She learned R packages to characterize morphometrics, a measure of traits in multi-dimensional space. Morphometrics essentially describes the shape of salamanders.  She did solid work and compiled a unique dataset.  She surpassed the first hurdle of science - doing the hard work of data collection. Publishing the work presented more hurdles.

Publishing scientific papers requires persistence, and by persistence, I mean a brutal relentlessness that does not give into fatigue or self-doubt. We submitted the first version of the paper in 2020. It quickly got desk rejected, and rightfully so (I tend to aim high). We then continued to submit the manuscript to three other journals ranging in specialties from herpetology to ecology. The reviews were mixed. Typically, one reviewer liked the manuscript and supported its publication while the other reviewer disliked the manuscript and wanted it rejected.  For most if not all scientists, this will sound familiar. All resulted in rejections. The decisions sometimes took painstakingly long. The manuscript finally landed in the right hands late in 2023, when we submitted an updated version to PLOS ONE. Both reviews were favorable. Throughout all of this, Elizabeth was working on her PhD, doing research that focused on a different topic in ecology.  Our manuscript was her side project, a diversion from her focal work, a lesson in the challenges of early career research. Fortunately, she stayed positive, engaged, and persistent with the paper, and saw it to publication.

The review process takes longer than anyone wants.  It also works. This paper greatly improved throughout the review process and multiple rejections. There were issues with our sampling design that needed to be better accounted for. Our initial versions were too liberal in their conclusions. The writing tightened up and became clearer thanks to reviewer criticism. The same was true for my first paper to come out of my PhD work, which took several years and multiple submission attempts to get published. I complained. I felt cheated. My advisors and I sent in appeals.  Yet in hindsight, comparing our initial submission to the final, published paper, I acknowledge how much the work improved thanks to reviewer and editor criticism.  Re-reading the initial submission of that paper makes me cringe. Re-reading the published version makes me smile.

I also smile as I see this paper now available online. The work marks undergraduate research done well, marked by creativity, diligence, and persistence.

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