While researching in Professor Randy Fuller’s lab in the spring of 1989, Jeff Hepinstall-Cymerman ’90 and a classmate proposed a recycling program to the University’s facilities department. They bit, and one day a week, the biology major buzzed around campus buildings to recycle discarded paper. An avid outdoorsman, he was interested in bringing environmental awareness to the Hill.
“I believe that, after he graduated, they had to hire someone to do what Jeff had been doing for free,” says Fuller, the Russell Colgate Distinguished University Professor of biology and environmental studies.
When he wasn’t leading recycling efforts, Hepinstall-Cymerman studied the growth of periphyton, small organisms that attach to rocks, in a stream near Colgate. “I did more fieldwork for my undergrad than I did for my master’s and my PhD combined,” he says.
That fieldwork paid off, and an ardent commitment to the environment has stayed with Hepinstall-Cymerman, now a professor of landscape ecology in the Warnell School of Forestry & Natural Resources at the University of Georgia. He studies species-habitat interactions, focusing on how changes in land use and land cover affect an area’s organisms. For example, how animals respond to anthropogenic changes, such as new housing and new food resources.
In his Spatial Ecology Lab at the Warnell School, Hepinstall-Cymerman gathers and maps this data, tracking species like the white ibis, to predict its future habitat use. His lab also studies other animals, like the gopher tortoise.
The white ibis, a marsh bird with a long bill, makes its home in the southeastern United States. Urban expansion has negatively affected the ibis’ Florida and southern Georgia wetland habitats, so the birds have increased in concentration in urban areas. “They’re becoming couch potato birds because they don’t have to go very far for their food — people are feeding them and they can eat in watered lawns and dumps,” Hepinstall-Cymerman says.
He and his student research team put GPS transmitters on a group of ibis to create maps tracking their movement and behavioral changes, which can answer questions like: Are the birds breeding? Are they actively migrating? “[This matters] particularly if we have urban birds who are hanging out in urban areas, accumulating more diseases, and then flying to other areas and spreading those diseases,” Hepinstall-Cymerman says. There’s a risk for humans, too — the birds carry salmonella, so a “harmless” activity like feeding them bread could lead to serious health concerns.
With the data collected by Hepinstall-Cymerman and his team, researchers can better understand trends relating to the ibis’ relationships to their habitats, and then make recommendations for wildlife management. Thanks to Hepinstall-Cymerman and his lab, we know that the birds react negatively to urbanization — that information could affect their future habits and survival as a species.