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Ossining Student Wins Young Naturalist Award

A student in the Science Research program at OHS, Rebecca Policello has been studying the Eastern Redback salamander population.

Rebecca Policello has been named a winner in the American Museum of Natural History’s Young Naturalist competition for her study of salamanders.

A student in the Science Research program at OHS, Rebecca has been studying the Eastern Redback salamander population in the hope that it will reveal new information about the amphibian decline that is sweeping across the world. She has been working with Dr. Jim Lewis of Fordham University and Jessica Arcate of the New York Botanical Garden to determine if environmental changes are making salamanders more vulnerable to a potentially lethal fungus.

“What I really want to know is why the fungus causes amphibians to die in some areas of the world but not others,” said Rebecca. “It leads me to believe that there are environmental factors that influence whether or not the amphibian can prevent the onset of the disease.”

The Young Naturalist Competition selects 12 winners, two from each grade seven through 12,  from hundreds of entries nationwide. Students research questions about biology, Earth Science, astronomy and ecology and then recount their investigations and findings in an essay, which is judged by a museum panel.

Rebecca chose to study the Eastern Redback salamanders because they are not limited to living near bodies of water and can thrive in urban environments including the New York Botanical Garden. She sampled salamanders from the NY Botanical Garden, Rockefeller State Park, Clarence Fahnestock State Park and the White Memorial Conservation Center, and conducted lab work at Fordham University’s Calder Center in Armonk.

Salamanders depend on bacteria that live on their skin to protect them from the fungus that has been associated with amphibian decline. Rebecca set out to determine if changes in the salamander’s environment could affect this defense system.

“So far, it appears that the more disturbed an area is the better chance the salamander has to defend itself against the fungus,” Rebecca said, adding that more research is needed to ensure that is isn’t an isolated occurrence.

Rebecca will receive a $2,500 award and an all-expense paid overnight trip to the American Museum of Natural History, where she will be honored at a celebratory luncheon under the dinosaurs with museum scientists.

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