This project will dramatically increase our knowledge of the ecology, biodiversity, and phylogeny of the phylum tardigrada through new undergraduate research programs at Baker University, Fresno City College, and Brigham Young University. The teams will conduct a biotic survey of North America by collecting tardigrades at the Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) sites. Student researchers will be trained to collect, identify, sequence, and report on tardigrades. Their results will be published in peer-reviewed journals and available over the internet on the Tardigrade Reference Center (TRC) at the Academy of Natural Sciences with keys, descriptions, images, DNA sequences, and distribution maps.

The project will discover new species, expand the continental diversity, and link DNA sequences to voucher specimens, in order to ascertain species associations, distributional patterns, and genetic variation of the tardigrades. The TRC will target scientists, educators and hobbyists who use the Internet to find data, facts, and teaching activities. The project models the collaboration between the undergraduate, research, and museum communities. It also fosters communication among specialists, and demonstrates the blending of morphological and molecular approaches to species identification. The project will expose many students to scientific inquiry such that they will be prepared for careers in science, education, and government.

Project Report

NSF: DEB: 0640959 RUI: Tardigrades of the LTER sites: A Framework for the Distribution and Phylogeny of North American Tardigrada William R. Miller, Carl Johansson, Byron Adams, and Jon Gelhuse (Paul Morris) The dual purposes of this project were to provide research experience to students at small undergraduate institutions and to advance knowledge about the little studied phylum Tardigrada. Our project was a collaborative partnership among two small schools (Fresno City College and Baker University), a large school (Brigham Young University) and a national museum (Academy of Natural Science). The NSF Long Term Environmental Research (LTER) sites were chosen because they provided a wide variety of habitats, have a research history, and are accessible. In the five years of the project we have hosted 65 undergraduate research students. 30 have been women, 5 have been African-American, 4 have been of Hispanic ancestry, 2 were Asian, and 1 Pacific Islander. 99% of our student researchers have or will matriculate to a four-year school, graduated, or now attend a graduate or professional school, greatly exceeding national levels. The students and PIs have made 30 professional presentations (posters & talks) at regional, national, and international meetings. To date the team has published 10 reviewed and 3 general interest papers, and 4 articles are in press with 13 students are co-authors. The team collected more than 25,000 tardigrades from 2,500 samples from 500+ sites across the continent. The team has expanded the known species diversity of seven states, extended the known distribution of more than a hundred species and described a new genus and four new species. We pioneered the use of DNA as part of a species description and developed new SEM techniques. We have fostered the development of undergraduate research at our institutions. Baker’s Biology department revised its degrees to include a research requirement. Fresno City College and BYU have integrated tardigrades and research into several courses and many students have used tardigrades for their senior projects. Baker’s Honors Convocation has evolved into a Scholars Symposium where students from all departments present their research to faculty, administrators, Board of Trustees, parents and other students. Professional collaboration has developed with Dr. Eric Linder in statistics, Dr. Jeff Miller in GIS and mapping and Dr. Clark Beasley as a taxonomic consultant. FCC and Baker have leveraged grant funds to acquire research level microscopes and by sharing with faculty colleagues have advanced other undergraduate research projects. Additionally, Josh Heward, a biology teacher at Timpanogos High School, and several of his high school students, also participated in our workshops, field and laboratory work. His high school students achieved at a level similar to that of the undergraduates. Together we developed tardigrade-based inquiry modules for exploring biodiversity, molecular biology and evolution. At our workshops, Adams taught the extraction and sequencing of DNA, Miller taught tardigrade taxonomy, and Johansson taught field ecology. Student research has compared urban and rural tardigrades and looked into the impact of pH on distribution. Students investigated an altitudinal transect in the California, tardigrades in the canopy of a Kansas tree, and found a new species of marine tardigrade in Florida. At the North Temperate LTER students found rare species and in Utah, a plesomorphic tardigrade genus was recovered. In Alaska, students discovered and described a new species of a genus known only from the southern hemisphere; complicating the biogeography and the evolution of the phylum. We developed two web sites. The first is our specimen management system at Fresno City College, which has more than 15,000 records. Many with multiple images and coded onto Google maps. This database has been invaluable in reducing research time in confirming identifications. It has already been accessed by international researchers. The second site, the Tardigrade Reference Center is a monographic site with both educational and scientific sides. The site has a searchable bibliography with more than 97% of the world’s literature. It includes a species distribution module also using Google maps. A multi-character species identification Key will aid students and researchers all over the world. We achieved all project objectives while training students in networking, research, scientific writing, and public presentations. Tardigrade Team members have been awarded more than 30 student research and honors grants and scholarships and their presentations have won awards at local, regional and national meetings. Many of our students have matriculated into graduate programs at top research institutions, including the University of California-Davis and the California Institute of Technology.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Environmental Biology (DEB)
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Thomas Ranker
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Brigham Young University
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