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MC students travel to 'rustic' Isle Royale to study biodiversity

Barry McNamara
Pictured at Isle Royale are, from left, Thea Bloom, Alanna Trettin, biology professor James Godde and Max Holle. Along with Kaitlyn Miller, the group spent 10 days on a research trip to the remote national park in upper Michigan.
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If a leech bites a moose in the middle of the woods, does it make a sound?
Monmouth College students aren’t sure about the sound part, but they can prove the bite occurred, thanks to research they conducted on Isle Royale, a remote national park on Lake Superior, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
How remote is Isle Royale? It requires a six-hour ride by ferry, and no one lives on the island year-round, with the park staff leaving for six months at the end of October. “It’s rustic,” said MC biology professor James Godde, who led the 10-day research trip.
A year ago, Godde led a similar trip to Southeast Asia, where his students collected 120 leeches in Malaysia to study the DNA that was found inside the blood-sucking creatures.
“My focus lately has been to study biodiversity, using leeches as reporters,” said Godde. “I thought to myself, ‘I can’t take off to Malaysia all the time,’ so we used North American aquatic leeches to do the same thing.”  
Because the Monmouth students collected aquatic leeches, the bite in question actually happened in Lake Superior itself, as opposed to the woods.
Joining Godde on the excursion were Thea Bloom of Chicago; Max Holle of Oskaloosa, Iowa; Kaitlyn Miller of Hobart, Ind.; and Alanna Trettin of Manito.
“We only got five leeches on this trip,” said Godde, who reported the leeches bite moose while they stand in water getting a drink. “So there was a lot riding on these five.”
But the desired payoff occurred. During testing performed this month as part of the college’s Summer Opportunities for Intellectual Activity (SOFIA), moose DNA was indeed found in one of the leeches.
“We’re now cloning that DNA into plasmids so we can have lots and lots of DNA to do tests on,” said Godde.
In addition to the number of leeches collected, another difference between the two research trips was the variety of dining options available to the leeches. Malaysia’s jungle is home to a smorgasbord of species, but because Isle Royale is so isolated, only 14 mammals inhabit it.
Because moose can swim, Godde said, their number is high, and is believed by park staff to be in the neighborhood of 850 on the 50-mile by 9-mile island. Wolves are the other large mammal species, but since they can’t swim long distances, they can only access the island when an ice bridge forms during a very cold winter. Biologists are hoping for such a deep freeze this year, as the wolf population has dropped to seven.
Godde’s SOFIA students, and the rest of the students during research at Monmouth this month, will show off their projects on Aug. 24 from 1 to 3 p.m. at MC’s new Center for Science and Business. The public is invited.