Student Research on VCC Property

When John Sweet made the decision to donate his 400-acre Highland County farm to VCC, his hope was that the farm might be used to help educate future conservationists for generations to come. Less than a year after making the gift, Sweet’s vision had already become a reality when David Weisenbeck, a student at James Madison University, approached Sweet about the possibility of conducting a survey of reptiles and amphibians on the farm.

What began as a component of VCC board member Eric Fitzgerald’s “Valley to the Bay” class at JMU soon evolved into a nearly six month project during which Weisenbeck spent many late nights out in the woods and wetlands on Sweet’s farm. Over the course of the project, Weisenbeck gained an appreciation for the diversity of wildlife on the preserve. “It quickly became my herping spot,” he noted. “Each time I go out, I find something new.”

The project has focused on identifying and documenting as many species as possible, mapping their presence so that future researchers can identify trends in diversity and distribution. The preserve is located at the intersection of several different habitats where multiple species overlap, so it can be a challenge to identify the species by sight alone. To aid in identification, Weisenbeck collects a specimen for preservation at JMU’s collections facility and takes tissue samples in order to analyze their genetics. Working with a labmate at JMU, he is then able to pinpoint the exact species found on the property.

Both Sweet and VCC are delighted with Weisenbeck’s work on the preserve. “Not only is this a great example of the educational opportunities generated by Mr. Sweet’s gift, but the project also provides VCC with baseline data that we can use to monitor change well into the future,” said VCC’s Scott Kelly of the project. “We’re grateful for David’s efforts and look forward to working with more rising conservationists to learn more about the Sweet Family Farm’s outstanding resources.”



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