Fellowship winner gauges prairie development by tracking its insects
Thanks to a prestigious Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program fellowship, Marie Walton has one of the most breathtaking work spaces on campus. She can be found most days at the prairie in Ohio State Lima’s Tecumseh Interpretive Nature Preserve. Because of the fellowship, cataloging the insects that are present is Walton’s sole focus for the summer. She is measuring the species density to gauge the health and development of the prairie and its inhabitants.
“What I'm doing is getting a general baseline of what butterflies and moths we have in the prairie right now,” Walton said. “Butterflies and moths are used as a proxy to monitor changes in the environment. They are utilized by national parks and land management agencies to do that now.”
Walton spends several hours a day during the week in the prairie and the rest in the lab cataloging the results. The level of research she has done because of her fellowship means that she will be able do a thesis and apply to graduate with research distinction on her diploma.
“I’m not a traditional student and I have to work a full-time job during the summer and part-time during the school year,” Walton said. “This fellowship has enabled me to take a leave of absence and dedicate myself to this research full-time. I love it. It’s like a dream come true.”
While the research distinction is important to her, Walton is also excited about leaving clear footsteps for other student researchers to follow. She is the first to do any research on the prairie, which is still in its infancy at four years old.
“It has been really important to me to do things very carefully and write down everything that I do so that it can be easily replicated,” Walton said. “I am interested in what future students will find and I want to be able to come back and see how it is going over there.”
One of her summer jobs before taking this fellowship was to monitor for any signs of the newly-renamed spongy moth for the Ohio Department of Agriculture. Those experiences tracking on invasive species helped build an interest in butterflies, moths and field work. She started talking to people who were in the field about how she could get there, too. Those discussions led her to Ohio State.
Walton’s desire to go to college for something that would put her on track for a park or naturalist career dovetailed with the addition of the zoology degree at Ohio State Lima. Now that she has had a taste of research, she is looking for a career that will both put her out in the parks and allow her to do research. She also must decide whether to continue in college to earn a master’s degree.
“If I went for my master's, I could research a prairie that is older and more developed and compare the butterflies and moths of a young prairie with what we see in an older, more established prairie. That is very alluring to me,” Walton said.
In addition to her research on the butterflies and moths of the prairie, Walton presented her poster “Surveying the Lepidopteran Community in a Restored Prairie” at the Evolution 2022 conference, helped conduct a prairie plant diversity survey to compare to the insect diversity and organized a teasel removal project.
Marie Walton is a senior in zoology who does her undergraduate research out of Robin Bagley’s lab.