Anthony Serino, Ph.D., associate professor and chairman of the Department of Biology at Misericordia University, works his way through the thicket, around various species of trees and over aged stone walls to lay three sets of five box traps, about 20 yards apart. Dr. Serino places two cotton balls and peanut brittle in the traps for bedding and bait, hoping to attract small animals, like mice, voles, rats and chipmunks, which are indigenous to this rural region of northeastern Pennsylvania.
Serino returns to the Williams Pipeline site the next morning, again utilizing a sport-utility vehicle to drive up an access road that was cut into the mountainside by the natural gas industry. The road provides access to the main line of the Transcontinental Pipeline that transports recently tapped natural gas deposits from the Marcellus Shale to markets outside Pennsylvania.
It is also one of the experimental sites the Misericordia scientist and his undergraduate students are utilizing as part of the three-year study "Forest Fragmentation Monitoring in Select Marcellus Shale Areas.'' The goal of the study, which is partially funded by Misericordia, Williams Companies Foundation and Chesapeake Energy Corp., is to determine what, if any, impact natural gas drilling and forest fragmentation has on small mammals in their natural habitat.
On this day, Serino tags, measures and weighs six deer mice before releasing them unharmed. The animals are tagged so researchers can determine population density, according to Serino. To date, the 150 laid traps have captured chipmunks, as well as deer mice and white-footed mice. The study will expand to include hair and blood samples of the mammals during year two of the study so researchers can develop a bar code of DNA for the animals.
"We are engaging in the process of fragmentation assessment and associated skills that provide our students with firsthand experience in an environmentally significant project,'' Serino said. "Students are immersing themselves in the scientific, social and economic factors which drive and are driven by the exploration and production of natural gas. By participating in this type of research, our students also are enhancing their probability of employment with gas-related industries in the region.''
Since the study began in August outside the Village of Osterhout, Serino and his student assistants, Nicholas Sulzer, '12, of Lehighton; Jessica Webber, '14, of Kingston, and Amanda Lazzeri, '14, of Shavertown, have trapped and tagged 10 deer and white-footed mice during 18 consecutive days of trapping.
The traps were assessed daily for a week, with the same trap locations being re-assessed again every three to four weeks over a three-month period, according to Serino. About 21 miles south of the Osterhout Mountain site, the Misericordia researchers also utilized a control test site in Kingston Township, on an undeveloped 80-acre family farm. Three collection cycles were completed at the site, with the final cycle being done in late September, according to Serino.
The control site exhibited a more vibrant collection rate, according to initial data, as 12 white-footed and deer mice were captured and tagged during the first wave of trapping, and 37 more were trapped during the second wave with eight marked.
By late fall, the study was suspended until spring because the cold nights could harm mammals that are trapped overnight.
"We will begin in earnest in the spring,'' acknowledged Serino.
Misericordia University's "Forest Fragmentation Monitoring in Select Marcellus Shale Areas'' study will involve multiple experimental sites during years two and three of the study. Serino is working to secure three pipeline and three drilling pad sites, as well as an additional control site. Many variables can affect mammal populations, such as altitude and forest density, so multiple sites are needed to make the study statistically valid.
"We have to try and see if the mammal populations are changing over time,'' said Serino, explaining the necessity for multiple trap lines and locations.
In the second year of the study, Misericordia researchers will expand the range of the study by running multiple trap lines at deeper intervals into wooded areas.
The final results of the scientific study will be shared with the Pennsylvania Biological Survey for possible publication in the Pennsylvania Academy of Science and other refereed ecology journals.