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Amphibian discovery raises more questions than answers

Minot State biology research student discovers unexpected (and never seen before) salamander activity and abundance under the ice.

It takes a special person to appreciate the seasonal activities of an 'Ambystoma tigrinum,' known as the tiger salamander to the 97 percent of the population who are not herpetologists.

So know right now: MSU senior Alex Radi is a special guy, who studies under another special guy, biology professor Chris Beachy, a self-proclaimed amphibian dork and the biggest salamander aficionado you will encounter in your life.

To fulfill his biology research requirements, Radi decided last summer to study the activities of tiger salamanders at numerous ponds. But then the flood came, and Radi, a National Guardsman, had bigger ponds to worry about. So this winter with his research requirements still unmet, Radi took an ice auger out to "Swalls Lake" south of the North Central Research Extension Center, drilled three random holes and lowered an underwater camera, not really expecting to see much. After all, herpetologists know that salamanders hibernate in the winter.

"The outcome I was researching was what salamanders do under ice. I was tracking their winter activity pattern." Radi said. "Based on what we know, I expected nothing."

What he found instead were a few salamanders swimming underwater. Inspired by this unexpected activity, Radi drilled a three-by-three grid and dropped the camera down each hole. To his surprise, Radi found more than 50 percent of the holes yielded at least one salamander sighting. Many had more than one salamander and some had swarms behavior not often seen even in warmer months.

"Research often ends up being not what you expected, because it's so unpredictable," Beachy said. "Alex's research has blown away salamander biologists' ideas of what goes on under ice. Now we have a new idea to research them in the winter months to test hypotheses and observe group behavior. This has raised more questions than answers."

Beachy posted Radi's five minute video on YouTube March 8 and sent it to two colleagues. Since then, there have been 459 hits from around the world and comments from top salamander scientists such as:

Travis Ryan: "The video is a special kind of awesome."

Ray Semlitsch: "This may be the best movie I've seen since the original 'Alien!!' I nominate Alex for an Oscar! WOW!"

Howard Whiteman: "That was awesome! Nirvana in many ways."

In addition to the fanfare, Radi will present his findings at conferences in North Dakota in April, South Dakota in May and at a joint meeting of ichthyologists and herpetologists in Vancouver in August.