Lessons from Wolf Tracking in the Pacific Northwest

Wild wolf caught on trail camera.

Few species have as storied a history with humans as the wolf. From an early age, I was fascinated by their prehistoric domestication and their more recent exterminations and reintroductions. I devoured every book about wolves I could find, and learned about the 1995 reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park. I found it so fascinating that one species could have such an extensive impact on the landscape. The wolves pushed elk from their comfortable hangouts on river banks, allowing stream flora to build up, and a greater variety of birds to make their homes on the banks. Wolves’ presence went so far as to have a physical effect on the topography of the area, and even brought back the quaking aspen tree from the brink of extinction! Learning these facts made me realize how important wolves are to their ecosystems as a keystone species, and kindled my desire to go out and explore the land they were changing.  

As a high school freshman already thinking about a career working with animals, I took part in a wolf tracking summer camp for teenagers run by Wilderness Awareness School, based in Washington State (quite a distance away from my home in New Jersey). At this camp we searched for signs of wildlife during the day on field expeditions, and came back in the afternoon to hit our mobile library to research our observations. Our instructors drilled us in subjects like paw pad morphology, bird markings, and common behaviors of local wildlife. We developed our deductive reasoning skills by transforming our observations on the ground into conclusions about the ecosystem’s structure. Every time we thought we’d found a sign of the area’s resident wolf pack, we’d mark it down on our map. By the end of the camp we had a pretty good idea of its recent activities. We left a trail camera at one of their high activity sites, and captured a video of an adult wolf accompanied by that year’s new litter of pups! Not only was it rewarding to see such elusive animals on our own cameras, but also we were the first observers to confirm that the pack had whelped that year. We were able to provide that information to Washington’s state scientist.

Front and hind track from a wolf in the cascade mountains.

There I also learned about the current challenges that occur when the lives of wolves and people intersect. In Washington and Idaho where wolves travel down from Canada and up from their reintroduction point in Yellowstone, they live on the same land where cattle farmers raise free range beef. Needless to say, this creates a complex intersection of values. Cattle farmers depend on their livestock for their livelihoods. Ranchers and their communities are concerned that wolves will harm that livelihood by killing their cattle instead of elusive deer. Whether it was seeing bumper stickers that said “smoke a pack a day” next to a picture of a wolf’s head, or hearing stories about hunters shouting at the top of the lungs that all wolves need to go to hell, I learned quickly that people felt strongly about this issue. As a future veterinarian and scientist, I understand the need for veterinarians to protect and help both cattle and wolves, supporting farmers and healthy ecosystems. 

Before attending this program, I didn’t understand how reintroducing wolves could have any negative impacts. Through my experience at Wilderness Awareness School I came to appreciate the validity of the concerns for reintroduction. Even if reintroducing wolves benefits the overall ecosystem, we cannot ignore the effects they have on ranchers’ livelihoods. Whether it’s protecting a herd of cattle, or treating an injured wolf, veterinarians can help innovate solutions to benefit all animals, wild and domestic. 

Patrick Liu, class of 2024, is a Cornell DVM student. He graduated with a degree in chemistry from Rutgers University in 2020, and plans to pursue internships and residencies after veterinary school. Apart from his love for horses, he has a strong interest in ecological research and wildlife and conservation medicine. 



Cornell to Construct New ‘Extra-Large’ Animal Hospital for Cetacean Patients

An architectural model of the new XL animal hospital as approved by the Cornell administration.  The crane is about to load a sperm whale into the exam room.

This post was published on April 1st.  The content is purely satirical but will remain on the site for your enjoyment.  

Over Spring break the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine had finalized plans to build a whole new facility for taking care of oversized cetacean patients.  The administration had been discussing the creation of this new facility ever since the C-section on a pygmy sperm whale 15 years ago that left the large animal hospital flooded.  Plans for an ‘extra-large’ animal campus finally got the green light when an alumnus donated an oversized buttload of money to the University.

“This new development is extremely important” says Isabel Jimenez (‘19) who had worked extensively for the wildlife clinic.  “We would get calls from people wanting to bring in dolphins, narwhals, bowhead whales, and I had to tell them that we couldn’t do it.  We’re supposed to be the best but we couldn’t even take in a blue whale for fluid therapy and a physical. This is the level of incompetence people expect from Penn, not Cornell.  I’m glad it’s about to change.”

The new facility will be equipped with all the facilities of the other hospitals: an ICU, suites for surgery, radiology, and dentistry, a pharmacy, and a treadmill for whales.  “I regret that we didn’t have this when I was in clinics” laments Zach Dvornicky-Raymond (‘21). “There are so many useful techniques that are best to learn on whales, such as those waist-deep rectal palpations that allow you to palpate the cervix with both hands.  I mean, whales have so much interesting anatomy, anatomy that the block 1 faculty have been trying to hide from us”

Providing facilities for whales is also about public health.  Due to the high fat content of whale milk, creameries are willing to pay top dollar for the stuff, with consumption of whale milk up 4,300% in the past decade.  “I’m very interested in the public health aspects of the whale milk industry.” says Sarah Balik (‘19). “That’s why I thought it was so great that Cornell is also installing a new whale dairy.  Whale health and human health are very interconnected.”

A dairy cow being milked at the dairy parlor.

Because of the public health aspects, the extra-large animal hospital will help Cornell vet school achieve its goal of one health.  This means that all problems on earth will soon be solved, and both humans and animals can rejoice in a Utopian state of eternal bliss!  We have yet to receive updates for the anticipated ‘extra-small’ animal hospital where surgical nanobots will spay and/or neuter your pet nematode.






The Bioethics of Wildlife Intervention

A young springbok prancing in the air, a behavior known as “pronking.” Photo via Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

A one-day-old springbok rises on his gangly legs — the shriveled umbilical cord still dangling from his ventrum — and begins to boing around his new surroundings. There is plenty to discover in the vast African bushveld, which he proceeds to do with reckless abandon.

Suddenly, a group of jackals saunters from behind an acacia tree and one of them seizes the “bokkie” by the neck. Within seconds, a game reserve employee dashes out of his safari vehicle to shoo away the jackals, gingerly picks up the injured springbok, and races to the wildlife clinic. Thankfully, no puncture wounds are detected, only bruising — the bokkie is later returned to the original site. The veterinarian waits from afar, hoping the youngster will rejoin his springbok herd.

Adult male sable antelope (Hippotragus niger). Photo via Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

A month later, an adult male sable is seen hobbling on three legs due to a severe hoof infection. Darting supplies and medications are loaded onto a helicopter, from which the sable is safely anesthetized. After sedation is achieved, the hoof is examined and subsequently treated with saline flush and antibiotics. A reversal drug is then injected into the thigh muscle, upon which personnel are instructed to vacate the premises expediently. Meanwhile, the veterinarian remains on-site to verify the antelope’s full recovery.

Clearly, there is never a dull day in wildlife medicine. As an aspiring wildlife veterinarian who plans to pursue conservation medicine, I have frequently encountered this bioethical issue in both my academic studies and fieldwork. The aforementioned circumstances were experiences I witnessed during my summer in Namibia, where I was conducting research and shadowing the resident veterinarian on a wildlife reserve. Although these individual scenarios involved many factors worth analyzing, the veterinarian plays a prominent role in each situation, often deferred to for coordinating the remedial actions taken and their outcomes.

The aftermath of the above scenarios: the sable gradually improved post-treatment, whereas the springbokkie was never seen again — and thus, presumed dead.

That begs the question: Was it right for the employee to painstakingly pluck the baby springbok from his herd after being attacked by jackals? Were his actions compassionate or officious? Although the infant was promptly returned, it was possible the bokkie was rejected from his herd since the human handling had now covered him in foreign scent. After failing to be adopted back into the group, he was left vulnerable to the pesky jackals once more.

As health care professionals, veterinarians are uniquely positioned to address complex ethical issues involving human, animal, and ecosystem health — a concept aptly known as “One Health.” This initiative governs the core of conservation medicine and reflects the interrelationship and transdisciplinary approach needed to ultimately ensure the wellbeing of all.

The history of human-wildlife relations has experienced some challenges and backlash, but handling these interactions involves balancing valid concerns, prioritizing values, and adopting a hybrid perspective. We regularly wrestle with whether our actions are restorative or destructive, and reflect on a track record of gratifying wins and unsavory losses to learn from. Given our substantial roles in the fate of conservation, it is imperative to debate the significance of interventional efforts and whether they can be rationalized.

While the veterinary profession certainly paints a noble picture of treating injured and sick animals, conducting mass rescues, and mitigating human-wildlife conflict, the interventional aspect entailed in all these tasks suggest, to some, the controversial idea of “playing God.” Are the measures taken regarded as dutiful obligation or self-righteous interference?

On a more abstract level, such apotheosis is inevitable for any professional practicing contemporary medicine. However, the hubris of playing God is arguably heavier for veterinarians since more stakeholders fall within their jurisdiction. As an arbiter for animals, humans, and the environment, veterinarians are constantly confronted with clinical decisions involving life and death and must calculate the associated risks and benefits for multiple constituents. Tampering with the system may result in inadvertent consequences. Conversely, just because resources are available does not necessarily mean they should be used.

Though many have applauded scientific achievements such as GMOs, assisted reproductive technologies, and instrumental surveillance, others have perceived these fields as an exercise of human dominance. The idea of wildlife intervention engenders similarly conflicting sentiments. When physicians and scientists employ these seemingly “unnatural” methods, public fear arises around their potential negative — albeit unintended — consequences. Such discomfort may reflect an underlying mistrust of science and technology in favor of a powerfully unpredictable force of nature as the ultimate source of authority. When working on a free-ranging wildlife reserve that actively promotes conservation, there are various instances in which human intervention is utilized, sparking discussion of the decision-making principles that are applied and the degree of success achieved.

On one hand, the “Circle of Life” argument is commonly cited against wildlife intervention. Such critics support a laissez-faire policy that enables Mother Nature to take her course. Any meddling on the veterinarian’s part would thereby violate this principle. Despite one’s desire to aid the patient and provide necessary care for its survival, that may interfere with the operative principle of natural selection. In retrospect, with the bokkie case, a passive approach may have been best. Simply put, there are predator species and prey species; animals must eat to survive, and we cannot disrupt this instinct.

However, the “Circle of Life” argument fails to extend to veterinary work conducted with domestic pets — namely, preventative medicine. For example, routine vaccination protocols that keep our companion animals healthy are also employed in wild animals to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. If an emerging disease threatens an epidemiological crisis — especially if the pathogen is zoonotic, i.e. can be transmitted between animals and people — this must be addressed on a population level to prevent a mass mortality event.

Generally, the guideline regarding wildlife intervention is to act when the problem presented is due to human impact. Whether it’s gunshot wounds, lead toxicity, or hit-by-car cases, we are obligated to treat accordingly. We bear a responsibility to rectify anthropogenic consequences wrought on wildlife, simply because we caused them. Moreover, other factors warrant intervention, particularly if there is monetary value attached to a certain animal or species in need of saving. In fact, this factor supported the decision to intervene with the adult sable, who was one of three males on the entire reserve. For the purposes of his health and tourism value, treating this sable was deemed permissible.

As stewards and advocates of nature, we understand the precautionary principle of playing God, its inextricable social and ethical implications, and the requisite, evidence-based risk management of any impending decisions. While there is no absolutism with these difficult situations and exceptions can occasionally be made, moral reflection, consideration of all stakeholders, and development of our own self-knowledge may help us navigate this complex terrain.

This post is written by Elvina Yau and was originally published on Mongabay on October 8, 2018.


Elvina Yau, class of 2020, is a veterinary student from Long Island, New York. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2016 with a degree in Behavioral Neuroscience and double minor in Creative Writing & Biology. Elvina aspires to split her time between practicing Companion Animal Medicine in the U.S. and contributing to conservation efforts abroad both as a clinician and freelance photojournalist.

The Cheetah Chronicles: The Next Generation

“Teacher! Teacher!” a bundle of children would exclaim as I pedaled along the fence of the schoolyard and parked my bicycle at the front gate. These high-pitched utterances would engender a variety of sentiments on my part: melting my heart to be greeted so warmly every morning, crawling over to read a picture book with them in a pillow fort, clapping with joy at their mastery of multiplication tables, or closing my eyes in dread over the spilled juice on the classroom carpet.

While the primary purpose of my summer placement in Namibia was to conduct intensive research on cheetah nutrition to enhance my clinical understanding of wildlife species, it was a tremendous honor to collaborate with the AfriCat Foundation to rewardingly extend that knowledge through educational outreach. AfriCat’s teaching philosophy is based upon the following quote from Baba Dioum: “In the end, we will only conserve what we love, we will only love what we understand, and we will only understand what we are taught.” The program itself aims to increase the students’ awareness of environmental issues, develop a sense of agency regarding their roles and the sustainable living practices they can engage in, and empower them to harness their strengths and passions to become ambassadors for wildlife.

Naturally, lessons were catered to the age group of the students. With kindergarteners, we created an arts & crafts activity to illustrate diversity in nature. Using a zebra as our teaching model and emphasizing the fact that no two individuals share the same stripes, we highlighted the beauty of difference and the importance of embracing and preserving that aspect in both the animal and human kingdoms. With middle schoolers, we would take the students out on nature walks and teach them about the bushman way of life. Bushmen are members of the indigenous hunter-gatherer groups that were regarded as the first inhabitants of various Southern African countries, including Namibia. I was amazed when learning about their sheer survival ingenuity, their profound respect for animals, and the deep spirituality that connected them with nature. Whether it was hollowing out an ostrich egg and repurposing it as a water flask, fashioning the fibers of the Sansevieria plant into a rope with exceptional tensile strength, or igniting a fire purely from dry grass and friction, the Bushman culture and its traditions are actively preserved by the Namibian people. Despite increasing modernization of society, the Bushman values, rich history, and practices continue to be shared with others.

With high school and university students, we would integrate more scientific concepts into the lesson plans and explain the evolutionary adaptations of animals we would spot on a safari drive. We often had comparative discussions between the big cat species and how their anatomical differences contributed to their distinct survival strategies. For example, the characteristic black tear tracks that run down every cheetah’s face is present in order to reduce the amount of light that gets reflected into their eyes. This is to facilitate their hunting endeavors, since cheetahs search for prey during the day. On the other hand, leopards have a noticeably bulkier skull due to the attachments of massive muscles of mastication. While cheetahs are built for speed, leopards rely on stealth and incredible bite force to strike their prey.

Though days were long and filled with instruction, there were definitely more laid-back, reflective moments as well. We would watch the brilliant sunset over a placid dam, roast marshmallows over a crackling campfire, and lie underneath the African night sky to identify constellations as our bodies rested gently in the sand. On some evenings, we would convene for dinner and do a traditional “braai,” a social barbeque feast where everyone gathered around a firepit to grill sausage and game meat as the Milky Way glowed above.

The educational outreach aspect was an invaluable part of my experience in Africa, as I truly enjoyed immersing in the local Namibian culture and building relationships with children of all ages, many of whom were inspired to pursue careers in conservation. Through such education and awareness in the Namibian youth, we ultimately hope to build a future generation that can one day competently manage the carnivore populations in Namibia, devise practical solutions to human-wildlife conflict, and balance the needs of endangered species with the economic livelihood of farming communities. Although tourism generates an appreciable amount of revenue to fund conservation projects, big cat populations are still threatened by shootings due to farmland encroachment, a response that mainly stems from a lack of education about how both parties can coexist peacefully. By inspiring young students, several of whose families actually own farms, to see the value of wildlife and ignite their passions for conservation, we are addressing the imperative that saving these carnivore species undoubtedly requires investing in the youth of Africa.


This post is written by Elvina Yau and was originally published on her WordPress blog, Elvina the Explorer, on September 3, 2018.


Elvina Yau, class of 2020, is a veterinary student from Long Island, New York. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2016 with a degree in Behavioral Neuroscience and double minor in Creative Writing & Biology. Elvina aspires to split her time between practicing Companion Animal Medicine in the U.S. and contributing to conservation efforts abroad both as a clinician and freelance photojournalist.

The Cheetah Chronicles: An Introduction

Greetings from Otjiwarongo, Namibia! My name is Elvina Yau and I am a rising 3rd year veterinary student at Cornell. My professional interests are quite varied, as I enjoy Small Animal Medicine, practice ownership, and wildlife conservation. Although companion animals and wildlife seem like disparate fields, there are pragmatic overlaps between the two disciplines that nonetheless require the advocacy of any aspiring veterinarian. I first participated in the Expanding Horizons program last summer, a formative experience studying Asian elephant welfare in Chiang Mai, Thailand. In order to further increase my exposure to wildlife species and international veterinary medicine, I am currently pursuing my second Expanding Horizons opportunity here in Namibia, Africa.

This summer, I have partnered with the AfriCat Foundation to conduct research on cheetah nutrition. Located on the Okonjima Nature Reserve, AfriCat is a non-profit organization established in 1993 whose mission is to promote the long-term conservation of large carnivores through education and research. According to the IUCN Red List, cheetahs are listed as Vulnerable. Namibia has the largest global population of roughly 2000 wild cheetahs, 90% of which can be found on livestock and game farms throughout the country. Since felids are predators that require large habitats and the majority of cheetahs live on commercial farmland, human-wildlife conflict often arises due to overgrazing from cheetahs and retaliatory killing by farmers. Clearly, transboundary conservation initiatives are needed to improve tolerance and livestock management at the human-wildlife interface, reform regional policy and legislation, and increase education at all levels of society in order to sustain a viable population of cheetahs.

My project specifically investigates the clinical, metabolic, and behavioral effects of glycine supplementation in cheetahs. The resident cheetahs at AfriCat are rescued from commercial farmland across Namibia, and are housed in spacious enclosures of 12-50 acres. Nutritional disease—namely glycine deficiency—is a prevalent health concern seen in captive and semi-free ranging cheetahs. Normally, cheetahs in the wild have a high dietary intake of glycine obtained through consumption of the carcass components of their prey, which supply rich sources of this amino acid. Glycine is a precursor for several important biomolecules such as DNA, creatine, bile acids, and glutathione (a major intracellular antioxidant). Glycine also plays a critical role in anti-inflammatory responses, neurological function, detoxification of organic acids, and maintainance of connective tissue integrity.

Although cheetahs can synthesize glycine from other amino acids like serine or threonine, this biochemical pathway is inefficient, and endogenous synthesis of glycine does not fully meet metabolic demand. While a mild insufficiency is tolerable, a chronic deficiency can be profoundly detrimental to the animal’s growth, immune response, and metabolism. Considering glycine’s properties and therapeutic benefits, our study seeks to supplement an appropriate glycine dose to the cheetahs’ diets to assess whether it is clinically promising towards their health and well-being.

Feeding trials will be conducted with sub-adult cheetahs by adding a glycine powder supplement to their standard diet for 4 weeks. Before the trial commences, each cheetah will be anesthetized to collect baseline data and samples (e.g. urine, blood). Hematology, serum chemistry panels, and urinalysis will be conducted on each cat to measure metabolites and physiological parameters like electrolytes and cortisol levels. Furthermore, abdominal ultrasounds will be performed and flexible endoscopes will be used in order to obtain gastric biopsies from each cheetah. After the 4-week trial, the cheetahs will again be anesthetized and endoscoped to collect another round of biological samples so we can compare pre- and post-glycine data. During the study, the cheetahs will also have their activity levels monitored to assess for any changes in behavior or sleep patterns. Since glycine is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, a potential side effect of dietary supplementation could be increased drowsiness.

Our dietary trials can thus illuminate the precise metabolic profile of cheetahs and test whether a glycine powder supplement helps improve the pathological conditions associated with glycine deficiency. By providing further insight into this unique and less understood aspect of carnivore health, our goal is to advance understanding of the metabolic alterations associated with malnutrition and intestinal dysbiosis, and hopefully develop a safe, inexpensive form of nutritional intervention.

Through Expanding Horizons, I am spending eight weeks in Namibia, where I can intimately experience the vibrant fauna and flora of the Okonjima Reserve. With an exciting and highly educational itinerary ahead of me, I will gain clinical perspective with big cat species in an international setting, and collaborate with esteemed professionals to learn how to better manage cheetahs in captivity and protect their population at large.

Veterinary care is essential in maintaining the health of cheetahs, while education of the global community is necessary to promote conservation efforts. In addition to my cheetah research this summer, I will be participating in AfriCat’s outreach initiatives by assisting with their Environmental Education Program. Working with local Namibian schoolchildren, we will be providing interactive lessons and activities to teach the young generation about carnivore conservation and the agro-ecosystem.

I look forward to embracing the new experiences and challenges that will accompany field research with cheetahs in Namibia this summer. Through my endeavors to improve the welfare of cheetahs and their conservation status, I am excited to dedicate my summer to impacting the lives of others as well as fulfilling my own.


Elvina Yau is a third-year veterinary student from Long Island, New York. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2016 with a degree in Behavioral Neuroscience and double minor in Creative Writing & Biology. Elvina aspires to split her time between practicing Companion Animal Medicine in the U.S. and contributing to conservation efforts abroad both as a clinician and freelance photojournalist.

Check out Elvina’s personal blog at Elvina The Explorer!

The Embryonic lives of Spotted Salamanders

~Four week old spotted salamander embryos.

Over the past couple of weeks, the last of the spotted salamander larvae around Ithaca have left their eggs and are now swimming around in vernal pools, pools that form in the spring and dry up later in the year.  They will feed and grow in these pools until they become adult salamanders and adopt a terrestrial lifestyle.  To the larvae, their lives have just begun, but to an outside viewer, a lot has already happened.

Back in April, Jonah Marion (’20) wrote a blog post about the spotted salamander migration in Ithaca, which occurred on May 29.  In the rain and under the cover of darkness, the salamanders had migrated from their forest habitat to the vernal pools where they reproduce.  The salamander migration is just the beginning of a fascinating life history.  With camera in hand, I have been continually checking up on the spotted salamanders and their embryonic offspring throughout the season.


A group of spotted salamanders breeding in a vernal pool the night after the migration.

A salamander returning from the water’s surface after taking a breath.

The spotted salamander breeds in vernal pools which are free of predatory fish since they dry up later in the year.  Because adult salamanders are normally terrestrial, they have lungs, not gills.  Thus, during breeding, they have to return to the surface of the water every few minutes to breathe.  Despite being terrestrial most of the year, the salamanders are well adapted to swimming; with the help of their muscular tails, they can propel themselves through the water by moving in an S-shaped pattern.

During breeding itself, the males deposit sperm-filled spermatophores, which females pick up and store in their spermathecae.  The spermathecae are organs used to store sperm for later use, sometimes even for future breeding seasons.1  When the females are ready, they will use their stored sperm to fertilize their eggs, and then deposit them onto sturdy pieces of vegetation.

After breeding, the adult salamanders return to land to continue their terrestrial lifestyle.  The migration from their vernal pools doesn’t occur as simultaneously as the migration into their vernal pools; males can leave earlier than females since they don’t have to lay eggs, and individuals don’t all necessarily leave at the same time.

The Eggs

A spotted salamander egg mass secured to a branch in a vernal pool. The eggs are collectively surrounded by a thick protective jelly.

Spotted Salamander egg masses are wrapped around sturdy objects such the living branches of woody plants.  The individual eggs are all packed within an outer gelatinous coat that protects them from predation.  However, this thick coat makes it difficult for oxygen to diffuse to the developing embryos.  To solve this problem, spotted salamanders have developed a symbiotic relationship with a type of green algae, Oophila amblystomatis.  The algae grows within the individual eggs, producing oxygen through photosynthesis while acquiring nutrients from the embryonic waste products.2,3   More recent research has shown that these algae invade the embryonic salamander cells themselves and then disappear during later stages of development.4  This represents a unique case of endosymbiosis between a vertebrate and an alga which is still the subject of active research.5

~Five week old embryos. The eggs can be seen filled with symbiotic green algae.

A diving beetle larva standing on top of a mature egg mass.  The thick outer jelly protects the salamander embryos from this predator.

The Larvae

Two larvae, days before hatching.  You can make out their eyes and the black spots of pigment covering their skin.  Some of their nest-mates have already left.

The pace of embryonic development can vary between populations and between egg masses; usually it takes 4 to 7 weeks for the larvae to finally leave their eggs.  For the Ithaca population it took about 7 weeks, with some variation between and even within egg masses.

When I checked on the egg masses in late May some of them were completely empty, with the eggs inside broken open.  This was a sure sign that the larvae had outgrown their eggs and had taken refuge among the abundant leaf litter.  Larval salamanders are adapted to life in their vernal pools; they have external gills and no legs.  They will feed and grow in these pools for 2 to 4 months until they metamorphosize into adult terrestrial salamanders.  Then, they will move onto land to seek permanent shelter in the forest.  It may take 2 to 3 years before they become sexually mature, and the cycle can start all over again.

An empty salamander egg mass.



  1. Chandler, C. H., and K. R. Zamudio. “Reproductive success by large, closely related males facilitated by sperm storage in an aggregate breeding amphibian.” Molecular Ecology 17.6 (2008): 1564-1576.
  2. Bachmann, Marilyn D., et al. “Symbiosis between salamander eggs and green algae: microelectrode measurements inside eggs demonstrate effect of photosynthesis on oxygen concentration.” Canadian Journal of Zoology 64.7 (1986): 1586-1588.
  3. Pinder, A., and S. Friet. “Oxygen transport in egg masses of the amphibians Rana sylvatica and Ambystoma maculatum: convection, diffusion and oxygen production by algae.” Journal of Experimental Biology 197.1 (1994): 17-30.
  4. Kerney, Ryan, et al. “Intracellular invasion of green algae in a salamander host.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108.16 (2011): 6497-6502.
  5. Kerney, Ryan, John Burns, and Eunsoo KIM. “Investigating Mechanisms of Algal Entry into Salamander Cells.” Algal and cyanobacteria symbioses. 2017. 209-239.


Sea Turtles: An Overview

During high school, I went to the Florida Keys and visited The Turtle Hospital. There, I met the turtle with a syndrome named after it, Bubble Butt, and donated supplies to help them continue their mission. Florida’s coastline serves as nesting ground for 5 of the only 7 species of sea turtles in the world! Though sea turtles are not in our backyard here in Ithaca, NY, they are of concern when we venture to warmer weather during the brutal Northeast winters, as well as spring and summer breaks.

These are the seven species of sea turtles:

  • Green (Chelonia mydas): endangered
    • Herbivore: sea grass and algae (also sponges and jellyfish)
    • Worldwide in tropical seas
    • Diet turns their fat green
  • Kemp’s Ridley (Lepidochelys kempii): critically endangered, rarest sea turtle
    • Omnivore: crabs, lobster, jellyfish, vegetation
    • Primarily Gulf of Mexico, restricted to North America
    • Named after Richard Kemp; “arribada” nesting behavior all together in middle of day
  • Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea): vulnerable
    • Gelatinivore: jellyfish, cnidarians, tunicates
    • Worldwide in deeper oceans
    • Has a unique leathery shell with longitudinal ridges along its carapace (upper shell), which allows for deep diving
  • Loggerhead (Caretta caretta): threatened
    • Omnivore: crabs, lobster, conch, algae, sea grass
    • Worldwide in tropical and subtropical seas
    • Strongest jaw muscles
  • Hawksbilll (Eretmochelys imbricata): critically endangered
    • Omnivore: sponges, small invertebrates
    • Worldwide tropical seas near coral reefs
    • Harvested for “tortoise-shell” pattern in jewelry and decorations; bird-like beak
  • Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea): vulnerable
    • Omnivore: crabs, lobster, fish, jellyfish, vegetation, sponges
    • Pacific and lower Atlantic oceans
    • Olive green shell; greatest number of scutes (shell scales)
  • Flatback (Natator depressus): vulnerable
    • Omnivore: sea cucumbers, sea pens, soft corals, jellyfish, echinoderms, sea grass
    • Around Australia
    • Named for flatness of shell

Nesting habits and artificial light

A problem that has arisen with increasing development along beaches is the inability of mother sea turtles to find good nesting spots and hatchling sea turtles to orient themselves to the ocean via the reflection of the moon after hatching. Due to coastline lighting, mother sea turtles end up laying their eggs in less than ideal locations (including in the ocean!), and hatchlings are predated, or become dehydrated and die in their quest for the sea.

Common injuries and illness

Most of the injuries and illnesses suffered by sea turtles are due to human intervention in their habitat.

  • Boat hits: Like manatees, turtles can get hit by boat propellers in shallow and deep water when they come up for air.
    • Boat propellers can cut through turtle shell, and this can result in the turtle becoming more buoyant. This disorder is referred to as Bubble Butt Syndrome after one of The Turtle Hospital’s turtles suffering from such incident. Those with the condition cannot submerge without weights, but attached weights can fall off so the turtles become permanently captive.
  • Impactions: Plastic bags look like jellyfish, and turtles are opportunistic feeders like goats.
    • Plastic bags and other trash and pollutants cannot be digested and block the digestive track of sea turtles causing what is called an impaction. In the wild, they will eventually die of starvation due to this issue. Impacted turtles are treated with Metamucil, fiber, and vegetable oil to ease blockage, much like horses with similar conditions.
  • Entanglement: fishing line can wrap around appendages and cut off circulation, but can also have hooks attached
    • As turtles swim, they rotate their flippers in a circular fashion, so a fishing line can encircle their appendages and prevent blood flow, causing turtles to lose function and possibly limbs and drown as they are not able to swim to the surface to breathe.
    • Turtles can ingest fish hooks which can damage their digestive tracts. The hook can either be treated similar to an impaction, allowed to rust out, or removed surgically.
  • Cold stunning: just like when you get in the pool for the first time in the spring, but with more severe effects
    • When the water temperature dips below 10 degrees Celsius (or 50 degrees Fahrenheit), turtles can become cold stunned; they lose the ability to swim/dive and often float to the surface. Treatment involves slowly warming them in water at about 3 degrees Celsius per day up to 24 degrees Celsius.
  • Fibropapillomatosis: caused primarily by a herpesvirus
    • Fibropapillomatosis causes tumors to grow predominantly on the face and flippers, affecting their sight and ability to swim. Surgery is used to debulk these tumors, but there is no vaccine or cure. Some turtles become immune over a year in captivity, but tumors can recur and be internal, where they are not detectable.

How you can help!

These important measures protect and respect all animal life, not just sea turtles.

  • Follow signage that asks you to “stay off the beach” during turtle nesting and hatching season so as not to disturb these magnificent creatures.
  • Follow ordinances to modify light fixtures and turn off outside lights, especially during nights of the nesting season if you live on the coast.
  • Clean up after yourself; don’t leave trash on the beach or anywhere where it could reach the sea.
  • Follow signage to stop boat propellers when in shallow water and where anchoring is permissible.
  • If you fish, be sure to gather your fishing line and dispose of it properly as it takes hundreds of years to degrade. If you see loose fishing line, be a good citizen and dispose of it in appropriate receptacles.


Lauren Jacobs is a third year Cornell veterinary student and student wildlife technician from Poughquag, NY. She received her Bachelor of Science Degree in Animal Science from Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in 2015, with minors in Biology and Music. Lauren is interested in mixed animal private practice and plans to continue to work with wildlife and enjoy music after graduation.

Sea Turtle Conservation in Costa Rica

As a senior in my undergraduate career, I had the wonderful opportunity to travel to Ostional, Costa Rica for a once in a lifetime experience. With one of the highest rates of biodiversity in the world, Costa Rica is a fascinating place to visit, especially if you are interested in wildlife. The town of Ostional is internationally recognized for its extensive sea turtle population, and I was very fortunate to spend two weeks at their National Wildlife Refuge. The Olive Ridley turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea) is their most common inhabitant, but Ostional is also home to some Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) and Green (Chelonia mydas) sea turtles.

Ostional is a small town located along the coast of the Nicoya Peninsula. The flight into San Jose International Airport and the eight hour bus ride to Ostional were more than worth it. The beaches of Ostional were like nothing I had ever seen before. Watching the sunrise and sunset as it reflected off of the black sand was a wonderful way to begin and end each day. The local people and the staff of the refuge were very welcoming and excited about working with wildlife.


Working on the beach during the day is extremely difficult, so to avoid the blazing sun, volunteers work in the very early morning and the late evenings. The night shifts were my favorite part of my trip to Ostional. During these shifts, we were able to go out with the patrollers to scale the beaches for trespassers and collect measurements on nesting turtles. We were required to wear all dark clothing and a red-shining headlamp in order to not disturb the individuals. Using just moonlight, we were able to see the trackings of the mother turtles coming up from the water; the indentations in the sand from their flippers and plastron were very prominent without an external light source. The trackings were the first sign of a turtle’s presence on the beach, and as we followed, we could start to hear the turtle as she dragged her heavy body to her preferred nesting site.

As soon as a turtle was sighted, we would observe her to determine what stage of the process she was in, or if she was just emerging, we would remain as far as possible until she had decided on a location. Once settled, the nesting turtle will begin securing that spot by tossing sand and making an indent, where she will begin using her back flippers to dig a hole. Soon after, she will begin laying her eggs, and we would use this opportunity to take measurements such as carapace length and width, flipper length, nest depth, and the number of eggs laid. We also tagged the turtle on the front right flipper in the hopes of seeing her again for longitudinal studies. Finally, the mother turtle uses her back flippers to close up the hole, and then she packs the sand by driving her plastron into the sand before heading back to the water.

One night while patrolling the beach, it became very apparent that there was a significant increase in the amount of turtles nesting. The local patroller notified us that this was the sign of an “arribada”, or a large, synchronized nesting time. Sea turtles are usually known for their individual nesting, and this is true for most species of sea turtles. However, the Olive and Kemp’s Ridley turtles are specifically known to have these synchronized nesting times possibly in relation with specific patterns of the moon. The “arribada” was truly a natural wonder as thousands of nesting Olive Ridley turtles emerged from the water over a three day period during both the day and night. It has been estimated that as many as 20,000-60,000 turtles can come to the beach during the dry season, and during the wet season, as many as 90,000-150,000 turtles emerge from the water with the innate drive to lay their eggs in the same place where they hatched. Because of the exuberant amount of turtles looking for space, many turtles will begin to encroach on another’s nest and, unfortunately, many nests from the early hours may be compromised. This problem has been noted by the people of Ostional in the past and, as a result, a legal egg harvesting program was enacted in the 1980’s. This development was a hopeful way to merge economic advancement for the people of Ostional with a scientific venture to theoretically increase the success rate of nestings by increasing sand quality. It was also proposed that this program may also heavily decrease the temptation of poaching specifically on sea turtles that lay their eggs individually. These legal egg collections are only allowed for a specific number of hours after a declared “arribada”, and they are regulated by biologists in studied sections of the beach. Many have viewed the program as a success for both humans and wildlife, but many are also skeptical. Although there have been many longitudinal studies on the economic and scientific implications, this is still an active area of research and ethical conversation for the community.

Seeing thousands of Olive Ridley turtles was an experience in Ostional that I will never forget; however, I also had the additional experience to witness a leatherback sea turtle emerge from the water to lay her nest. Leatherback sea turtles are found periodically nesting on this beach, but they are definitely not as common as the Olive Ridley turtles. When the leatherback was sighted, it was truly a sight to behold, and word of her presence woke up many in the community to come to the beach. Leatherback sea turtles can weigh more than a thousand pounds, and the sound that the turtle made while traveling up the beach demonstrated just how massive she was. In Ostional, I got to learn from a special group of researchers as they collected the data on the less common species: the leatherback and green sea turtle. For this leatherback, the researchers collected her eggs to incubate in a more regulated environment. They do this in the hopes of having a better survival rate and an increase in the Ostional population of the leatherback because they are unfortunately declining. After the eggs hatch, a time is determined to release these newborns on the sand for optimal survival rates. During my stay, I was privileged to see the release of a hatched leatherback nest, and I will never forget the site of these small newborns as they quickly ran towards the open ocean.

Volunteering in Ostional was an extraordinary experience, and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in wildlife. During my two weeks, I was able to work alongside wonderful local mentors and experience the effect of international wildlife programs. I am eternally grateful to the National Wildlife Refuge and my homestay family for this opportunity; it was surely an experience that shaped my desire to become a zoo and wildlife veterinarian.

If anyone has any questions or would like to talk more about this opportunity, please feel free to email me – vra23@cornell.edu



Victoria Albano is a first year veterinary student from Staten Island, NY. She received her Bachelor of Science from Cornell University in May of 2015, with a major in Animal Science. She is excited about zoo medicine and its impact working in conjunction with conservation education. She hopes to one day work as a zoo or wildlife veterinarian.

Spotted Salamander Migration

The spotted salamander is one of the most prominent salamanders found in the woods and forests around Ithaca. A few weeks ago, back when Ithaca briefly decided winter was ending, and it was beginning to feel more like spring, they began their annual migration. I was able to bring a handful of veterinary students with me to witness this event, and many seemed interested in learning more about these little guys and their lifecycle. I hope to address some of the more common questions here.

Spotted what?

The spotted salamander is a small (6 to 9-inch-long) salamander most notable for its blueish-black coloration, with two rows of bright yellow spots running down either side of its back from head to tail. It is commonly found in the Eastern United States and Canada. It belongs to a group of salamanders known as mole salamanders (genus Ambystoma), and, as such, is adapted to living most of its life on land. Its most significant adaptation is the presence of true lungs in the adult animal.

Why are they migrating?

Migration is a normal part of a spotted salamander’s life! Like all amphibians, once they hatch from their eggs, they begin their lives as aquatic and free-swimming larvae. The larvae will grow into juvenile salamanders capable of living on land within 2-4 months of hatching. However, to start out in water, their eggs must be laid in the water; this is where the migration comes in. Adult salamanders will often return to the pond in which they were born to find, and mate with, other salamanders. They will then lay their eggs in large jelly-like clumps that can be found underwater in these ponds. After a couple of months, the eggs will hatch, starting the cycle over again.

How often does this happen?

Photo by Elle Gunzel

Spotted salamanders are triggered by the warming weather and gentle rains that come with the end of winter and beginning of spring. When it is too cold, their metabolism is simply not active enough to allow them to make the trip, and a prolonged journey in dry weather can be damaging to their skin. Additionally, most salamanders breed in vernal ponds, which can dry up later in the season. As the salamander’s future offspring need to be fully developed and able to survive on land by the time the pools dry up, there is significant pressure on these animals to get out and migrate as soon as possible. As a result, you typically will only see one migration a year, consisting of all the salamanders living in a specific area. It is important to note that spotted salamanders will also migrate back from their vernal ponds after breeding, but this event is much less predictable, and much less spectacular, as they will move in several waves.

Where do they live normally?

When not breeding or migrating, spotted salamanders adopt a lifecycle similar to all other mole salamanders. They live in forests, under leaf litter and debris where it remains moist most of the time. They will also inhabit burrows to stay cool and moist. While not big diggers themselves, they will gladly occupy the burrows of other animals, if available. This tends to be not a big problem, as it allows them to hide from most larger predators, and smaller predators will be dissuaded by the toxins found in the salamander’s skin. In the event they do encounter a predator, salamanders have an unprecedented ability to regenerate their body. They have been noted to regrow their tails, limbs, and even parts of their brain, although this can take a massive amount of energy.

How do they survive the winter?

With the onset of winter, spotted salamanders will typically seek out deep burrows, hopefully ones that are under the frost line. When cold weather comes, these animals will enter a state known as brumation. Brumation is similar to hibernation in mammals, such as seen in black bears. However, hibernation is a state caused by prolonged unconsciousness, whereas brumation is a state were prolonged unconsciousness is caused by a lack of metabolism. Bears sleep to hibernate; amphibians are asleep because of brumation. If the weather warms up, as tends to happen periodically, brumating animals will become briefly active, whereas hibernating animals will stay asleep. Additionally, when the seasons change many amphibians have the ability to rapidly mobilize glycogen into glucose, thus raising the amount of glucose present in their blood and tissues. This effectively raises the freezing point of their tissues, similar in effect to putting antifreeze in your car. This also means that, upon defrosting, these animals will rapidly have a source of glucose to keep their cells alive, even if their circulatory system hasn’t fully recovered yet.

How do you know when the migration is occurring?

I got this question a lot. What it breaks down to is knowing the natural biology of the spotted salamander that I have previously discussed. Upon the end of winter, usually in March or April, you need to wait for the right conditions. On particularly rainy days, where the average temperature is at least 45 degrees Fahrenheit, you should have a high suspicion that these animals will be on the move. I simply waited for the right conditions, and went to check the fields on appropriate nights. The migrations start around 8:00 pm, with peak movements occurring between 9-11 pm, although it may continue throughout the night. If you see salamanders as early as 8:00 pm, you can guarantee there will be more on the move shortly.

Do be careful if you go out though. Salamanders and other amphibians have not exactly adapted well to human encroachment of their environment. While this weather means there will be lots of salamanders on the fields, there will also be salamanders, frogs, and toads out enjoying the wonderful weather on the roads. The day after every warm, rainy night, you will invariably find squashed amphibians on roads that are near ponds. If you live near such a pond (the high-pitched chirping of thousands of spring peepers will tell you if you do), please be careful on the roads, and keep a lookout for our tiny “cold-blooded” friends.


Jonah Marion  is a second year Cornell veterinary student with a primary interest in reptile and companion exotic animal medicine.