UNC Asheville senior biology student Molly Reger spent her 2018 summer break on a private island in the Turks and Caicos Islands.
And you should be very, very jealous.
Not because Reger spent her days splashing in crystal clear waters or stretched out across a sandy beach in the warm sun. Rather, because she spent her days—and many hours of her nights—tracking down the Turks Island Boa, a threatened species of boa constrictor, and making discoveries entirely new to science.
Reger traveled to the Turks and Caicos Islands with Graham Reynolds, assistant professor of biology at UNC Asheville, and a team of scientists, conservationists and veterinarians from the San Diego Zoo and Bronx Zoo. The island they’ve been living on for the summer is inhabited only by plants, animals, and construction workers living in a compound while they work to repair the few houses on the island, which were damaged badly by hurricanes. Reger, Reynolds and the other scientists are also staying in the compound, where they are served meals that typically consist of rice and some kind of meat—sometimes oxtail or goat. It’s hot, Reger said, and most of the plants have thorns.
But she also claims that it’s been a great summer.
The morning might start with surgery on a boa constrictor or an iguana, explained Reger, who helped the vets from the Bronx and San Diego Zoos surgically implant radio transmitters into the animals so that their movement could be tracked once released back into the wild. Twelve boa constrictors total were outfitted with the transmitters.
“After surgeries we would have a lunch break, and then after lunch break we would go out and get daytime fixes on [on the locations of] the boas that had been released already,” Reger said. “And they’re really just underneath a rock during the day because it’s too hot… And we go back during the night and get another fix on their location. That’s when they’re mostly active, so we can actually see them foraging, which is really cool.
“We finish around midnight every night.”
Reger is not only collecting these data for her own undergraduate research project and for her own experience—she hopes to pursue a career in wildlife veterinary work—she’s also collecting data for the wider scientific community.
“What she’ll end up with is a big database of where the boas go through time, and that’s something we don’t know anything about,” Reynolds said. “We don’t know how far they move, or what habitats they’re using or anything like that. So, this has been a big missing piece of data that we need for conservation of this boa.”
Reger has already observed boa behavior that no was has ever seen before, when one boa mysteriously traveled to a mangrove forest on the island.
“We never knew that this species would go into the mangroves, so that’s brand-new information, that they use that habitat,” Reynolds said. “That’s a pretty cool thing, that these data are going to be useful for a lot of people as we design conservation strategy for these boas.”
“They’re interesting just because they’re so gentle,” Reger said. “You can pick them up and they don’t bite you, they don’t try and constrict you. They’re really easy going. They can eat iguanas that are bigger than them. We saw one the other night that was constricting an iguana.
It’s really cool to see them the next day, their stomachs are humungous.”
Reger will return to the island in January to continue her data collection. In the meantime, she’ll be working to complete her final year of studies at UNC Asheville, and then she hopes to move on to veterinary school—with a focus in conservation.
“I’m really hoping to combine my love for animals and veterinary medicine and conservation and be able to help conserve endangered species in the future,” Reger said. “And this is a really great start.”
Visit unca.edu/programs/biology for more information on the UNC Asheville Biology Department.