Senior dives deep into wildlife research​

By Katie Carroll

Paige Weldy

Photo by Katie Carroll

Paige Weldy has spent long days in frigid waters gathering information about hellbenders, an endangered aquatic salamander native to Indiana. Hellbenders are indicators of water quality. When hellbenders are abundant, the water quality is good; if they are absent, water quality is probably poor. Full-size image (7.66 MB)

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By dawn on a chilly October Saturday, Paige Weldy and her teammates were wide awake, navigating southern Indiana’s Blue River. When they saw a large rock in the water under their kayak, they pulled on their snorkels, zipped their wetsuits and hopped into the frigid water. The team carefully peered underneath the rock, discovering a sight few people have ever seen: a male hellbender guarding a nest of eggs.

For 12 hours that day, Weldy and her fellow hellbender project researchers circled the river, scanning for signs of the endangered aquatic salamanders that are native to Indiana. Even though Weldy’s arms were sore from rowing the kayak and her skin slightly purple from the cold water and weather, she did not want to spend her time any other way. 

“I absolutely love conservation and working to help wildlife,” said Weldy, a senior from Bremen, Indiana, dual-majoring in wildlife and animal sciences: preveterinary medicine. “I want to help keep wild populations at a good level because a lot of the problems they have were caused by people.”

Hellbenders are especially susceptible to environmental destruction and water pollution. Researchers consider them to be an indicator species, which means that their reactions to the environment can tell scientists a lot about the ecosystem’s health. If hellbenders are abundant, the water quality is satisfactory, and if they are absent, the water quality is probably poor. 

Weldy helps Purdue scientists recognize the threats that hellbenders face and informs the public about the importance of conservation.

“It is very important to bring attention to a species that a lot of people don’t know much about,” she said. 

Weldy started working with hellbenders in spring 2015. Since then, she has been working on her own research project that investigates predator-prey interactions between hellbenders and their main prey, rusty crayfish. This research opportunity has been the perfect fit for the self-proclaimed animal lover and outdoorsy person.

“When I was little, I always ran around in the woods and just loved animals,” Weldy said with a smile. “My mom probably had to tell me ‘No,’ because I’d bring home animals all the time, not just dogs and cats — I’d bring home toads.”

Weldy won’t be bringing home any hellbenders, but she has put her interests to work to make a difference in the Indiana ecosystem. She also feels she is making a difference by helping with outreach events across Indiana. Weldy and her teammates set up booths at county fairs and zoos to educate the public about hellbenders and the importance of water quality. Weldy gets most excited about her outreach when she engages people and gets them excited about hellbenders. 

“Most of the time you ask someone ‘Do you know what a hellbender is?’ and they’re like, ‘No, I have no idea,’” Weldy said. “So, it’s really awesome to bring attention to a pretty unknown species, and it’s fun to engage people, especially young people, once they know what a hellbender is and how they can help it.”

Weldy has also been excited to see how her outreach and lab work have changed her as a researcher and person. She has learned that research is rigorous. Weldy has been challenged to not only improve her own knowledge and technical skills but also to find ways to meaningfully present her findings. 

“Research is so much harder than I ever anticipated it being,” said Weldy. “I got A’s on all of my papers in classes, but when I got to my research lab, that wasn’t good enough; it’s at the next level.”

But, she’s not complaining. In fact, she loves the challenge, and the results of her research could be published later this year.

“I think it would be tremendous to be published because I’ve been working on the research and paper for a few years now, so it’d be great to finally have it accepted and published,” Weldy said. “There’s a lot of pride that comes from knowing that you did all that work for something and that people are interested in reading about it, which is why it’d be getting published.”

Along with working on her own project, Weldy has been able to work as a part of a team and become friends with people who share her interests. 

She said the individuals in her lab have become a second family for her. They have invited her to their homes for barbecues, supported her emotionally while her grandmother was sick, and even helped her complete veterinary school applications. She believes that the bonds she has made with her teammates are irreplaceable.

“Yes, research is a serious thing, but you don’t have to always be serious with the people,” Weldy said.

Not only do these friendships help Weldy feel at home at Purdue, but they also enable her team’s research to succeed. 

“You have to be able to work closely with somebody to make your research project work,” she said. “I can’t imagine doing it alone. You always need help. You always need a second opinion.”

Whether she’s spending the day snorkeling in the river, caring for the hellbenders in the lab on campus or visiting zoos to educate the public about conservation, she always remembers the moments when she is surrounded by the people who care about her as a person first and a researcher second.