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Mizzou Wire

The wetlands man

Ray Semlitsch earns national recognition for practical ecology

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  • Story by Chris Blose
  • Published: June 5, 2008
Salamander on a rock

Biologist Ray Semlitsch studies the habitats of amphibians such as the blackbelly salamander (above), a native of North Carolina. Semlitsch's focus on amphibian ecology earned him a National Wetlands Award. Photo by Bill Peterman.

For Ray Semlitsch, a career in wetland biology and ecology feels as natural as his time spent hunting, fishing, tromping through streams and forests, and soaking up the beauty of the great outdoors. His work is a fitting outlet for his lifelong curiosity.

“When I was 8 or 9 years old, I was raising tadpoles in coffee cans and milk jugs in the garage,” Semlitsch says, “watching them metamorphose and just thinking how fascinating it was. Now, I do it professionally.” 

Semlitsch does it not only professionally but also well. In May, the Environmental Law Institute brought him to Washington, D.C., to receive a National Wetlands Award. He earned this honor in part for his work linking small wetlands and terrestrial habitats and showing how the creatures in such areas respond to environmental changes.

Semlitsch, a Curators Professor of Biological Sciences, and his colleagues first published research findings about this topic in a paper in Conservation Biology in 1998. At the time, biologists had plenty of data about aquatic and land-based environments, but the connection between the two was missing.

“In science, all these bits and pieces of knowledge are out there,” Semlitsch says, “but until someone puts them together to make one picture and then draws attention to what that picture means, the individual pieces don’t get recognition.”

Practical knowledge and popular attention

Graduate students sample amphibians

Ray Semlitsch (back row, left) and graduate students sample amphibians in a small wetland on Missouri Department of Conservation property. Photo by Dana Drake.

Semlitsch has continued to study variations on the wetland-terrestrial connection. He drew popular attention in 2007 with research about golf courses. Using Columbia’s L.A. Nickell Golf Course and Mizzou’s A.L. Gustin Golf Course, he showed that amphibians could thrive in water hazards with sufficient buffers and proper land management.

He has published research results in academic journals, of course, but he also works with the United States Golf Association and targets golf course managers and consultants around the country. He uses his research to encourage responsible practices, such as maintaining native vegetation and using existing ponds and other water features instead of filling them in and building artificial water hazards.

More recently, Semlitsch has advocated that same responsible approach to timber harvesting and land use. Past studies have shown that clear-cutting of timber leads to a decline in the population of salamanders and frogs. But Semlitsch’s research, published in the March 2008 Ecological Applications, went a step further and looked at the behavior of those creatures in that scenario. It documented, among other things, survivors’ evacuation into surrounding wooded areas.

Such research leads to practical advice for the timber industry. For example, if loggers produce smaller clear-cuts, salamanders and frogs can escape to nearby woods more easily. Much like he did with the golf course work, Semlitsch pushes that advice in the direction of industry leaders, not just academics.

Semlitsch doesn’t want to preach to the choir; he wants to make a practical difference. This desire goes back to his own days as a fascinated child observer of wildlife.

“(Ecology) has become much more of an urgent necessity,” he says. “If we don’t start doing something about it, we aren’t going to have some of these species left for people to look at, to admire.”

Read more in:  Agriculture & the EnvironmentScience & TechnologyBeyond Campus

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Last updated: June 6, 2013