He also believes amphibians should be studied because they are currently experiencing a global decline. Much of the decline is due to habitat loss, and locally, eastern North Carolina has seen its share of lost wetlands.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, North Carolina has lost 50 percent of its wetlands in the past 150 years. Since 1980, the state ranks in the top five in terms of wetlands lost. This alarming trend also increases the value of isolated temporary ponds, but sadly, they are not immune from the same human development that has plagued the wetlands of the coastal plain. Chalcraft’s artificial ponds allow him to study ecosystems and conduct long-term studies without fear of losing his research site to a new condominium community.
Artificial ponds also accommodate very precise experiments. Chalcraft can control nearly all aspects of pond properties and manipulate factors of interest. It allows him to draw statistically meaningful conclusions that are more difficult to achieve when working in real ponds.
But not all of Chalcraft’s research is dependent on artificial ponds. He and his team of researchers also conduct field research in the Croatan National Forest. He also collects the specimens that he uses to colonize his artificial ponds with species of amphibians and insects found there.
The artificial ponds are vital to achieving his research goals. The laboratory at West Research Campus has provided him with a secure location, as well as the space necessary to house the 250 50-, 100-, and 300-gallon plastic tanks crucial to the project for the past four years. The natural setting also gives Chalcraft and his team the ability to be creative in their work.
“Sometimes we’ll do these colonization experiments where we’ll leave the tanks open and let things colonize them naturally,” he said. “These colonization experiments allow us to understand how ecological systems put themselves together. Such an understanding is crucial if society wants to attempt to restore biodiversity in natural systems that have been altered or destroyed. We get a lot of things that can colonize these tanks at the West Research Campus we couldn’t get on campus. So there is tremendous value in maintaining the natural areas that are out here for those experiments.”
Chalcraft became interested in ecology as a young boy in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. He enjoyed playing in the fields behind his grandparents’ house, catching things and seeing what they did. He was fascinated by his accidental discovery of the life cycle of mosquitoes, when the larvae he had collected in a cup and brought into the house, hatched into a cloud of the blood-sucking insects. He knew at five years old what he wanted to be when he grew up, even if he didn’t know the name for it.
“I didn’t know it was ecology. I wanted to figure out why there were so many things out there and what they did in their environments,” he said.
ECU is fortunate that he did. Chalcraft recently received a research grant from the National Science Foundation for his work studying the consequences of declining biological diversity in temporary ponds. It is another validation of the high level of research being carried out at the university.