Date July 13, 2023
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Eliza Atwood: Researching wildlife nutrition and migration patterns in Yellowstone

Knee-deep in prairie grasses, the rising Brown University senior is collecting plant samples and bison waste to expand biologists’ understanding of animal nutrition in the wild.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Each summer, visitors flock to Yellowstone National Park to take in its splendors. This year, Brown University student Eliza Atwood is among them — but as a researcher, not a tourist.

Atwood, a rising senior concentrating in environmental science, is based out of Montana for eight weeks, where she starts most mornings out in the field collecting bison fecal samples. In tandem, she and the other members of the research team gather plant samples that they press and bag, which they use to cross-reference plant traces found in the feces.

Eliza Atwood
Eliza Atwood is in Yellowstone National Park this summer.

Their work is contributing to an ongoing research project aimed at deepening biologists’ knowledge of the food web for bison and other large mammalian herbivores in Yellowstone. The data will help expand an understanding of how their diets can sustain their epic annual migrations across the ecosystem, and ways that disturbances in the system may have adverse effects.

“Through the samples, we’re learning a lot about nutrition of the bison in particular — and other large herbivores in the park like mule deer, bighorn sheep, pronghorn sheep and elk,” Atwood said.

A departure from her average day as a student at Brown, where she rows for the University’s women’s crew team and works as an undergraduate teaching assistant in biology, Atwood is spending the summer at Yellowstone collaborating with Tyler Kartzinel, an assistant professor of ecology, evolution and organismal biology at Brown.

It was Kartzinel’s Conservation in the Genomics Age class in the Fall 2022 semester that deepened her interested in field research.

“His class was really great at accelerating learning techniques about formal research and lab work,” said Atwood, who is from Sewickley, Pennsylvania.

Atwood’s research internship, which is funded through Brown’s Summer Undergraduate Teaching Research Awards, is providing her with hands-on experience in wildlife ecology research. She is thrilled that she gets to work as part of a professional collaboration between Brown University researchers and the National Park Service — all while exploring one of the nation’s most treasured and iconic wildlife conservation areas.

“When we’re not working, we’re hiking, we’re getting to see a ton of wildlife,” she marveled.

researchers in the lab
Eliza Atwood (left) and a colleague process fecal samples from large herbivores.

When it comes to the daily task of collecting waste samples from bison — animals that can weigh up to 2,000 pounds — it’s a process that requires caution and fortitude.

“You have to first make sure you’re a safe distance away from the animal you’re collecting samples from,” she said. “It’s really a nitty gritty process — not to mention sweaty, smelly and exhausting.”

Once late afternoon arrives and the sun begins to cast shadows on the grassland prairie, the team returns to the lab, where they organize and log samples into databases. To properly identify plant species, the team combs through books and other research papers to find clues and figure out “which plant is which,” Atwood said.

The fecal samples are analyzed using DNA metabarcoding technology — which allows for comprehensive identification of plants within the same sample. As part of the team’s ongoing research in the park, fecal samples collected from last year are being processed and sequenced in addition to this year’s samples, Atwood said. Park rangers also collect samples throughout the winter that are stored in the freezer.

The team is also studying small plots of land scattered throughout the park to better understand what plants thrive together and the ways that animal grazing impacts their regeneration.

The multifaceted process has given Atwood a newfound appreciation for fieldwork and research.

“I didn’t realize how much manpower it takes to collect all these specimens and build a library,” Atwood said.

The plants that are collected will also contribute to a library at the Yellowstone Herbarium — with collection and identification done in collaboration with the Brown Herbarium — where they will serve as “vouchers” for the DNA metabarcoding. 

With an eye toward her senior thesis when she returns to Brown, Atwood is deepening her interest in how climate change, fertilizers and drought may impact vegetation.

As she continues her summer at Yellowstone, Atwood is grateful for the opportunity to tap into her team members’ broad knowledge base and learn about their professional journeys as she considers her own future after graduation in 2024.

“It’s cool to ask the team how they approached different stages of schooling and work,” Atwood said. “This whole project experience is going to serve me well, beyond just the summer.”

Atwood’s summer research experience is also supported by the Garden Club of America’s Clara Carter Higgins Summer Environmental Studies Scholarship, which she was awarded, the National Park Service Cooperative Research and Trainings Program, and the National Science Foundation (DEB-2046797 and OIA-2033823).