“What better way to go adventuring than through a dark, confined cave?”

Mars graduate searches for invertebrate life-forms in Pa. caves

November 27, 2019 Cranberry Local News

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Mars High School graduate Owen Skirtich spent his summer in caves looking for beetles as part of a summer experience project.

A Mars High School graduate spent his summer underground in cold, clammy caves pursuing research.

Gettysburg College student Owen Skirtich of Mars along with fellow student Georgia Larzelere worked with Biology Prof. Istvan Urcuyo to research and catalog invertebrate life-forms of Pennsylvania caves, as part of their summer research experience through the Cross-Disciplinary Science Institute at the college.

Skirtich's learning opportunity required grit, flexibility, a fair amount of bravery and no aversions to mud or water. The cave environment is 100 percent humidity, with a temperature range of 49 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit, and there are areas where the team could be wading through waist deep water or higher.

“As a curious individual, I enjoy the feeling of adventure and exploring new environments,” said Skirtich. “What better way to go adventuring than through a dark, confined cave?”

Larzelere agreed. “I had never gone caving before, but I've been hiking and climbing and thought it would be a great experience,” she said. “Prof. Urcuyo was happy to teach us the proper caving techniques.”

Urcuyo, an experienced caver, started caving as a form of stress relief when he was in graduate school. He has participated in multiple caving expeditions in the eastern United States and the Dominican Republic. Years later, he's turned his hobby into a research experience for undergraduate students.

From left, Gettysburg College student Georgia Larzelere, biology professor Istvan Urcuyo and Owen Skirtich posed at the end of one of their underground exercursions.

Skirtich and Larzelere were drawn to this particular cross-disciplinary experience due to the intense amount of field work it required. Both students had minimal to no caving experience, but over the summer, they visited three caves at least two to three times to conduct the research.

As a biology major, Larzelere came into the project ready to learn about invertebrates and caving. Her goal was to find and photograph Collembola in the caves. “I've been doing individualized research on a hexapod called Collembola, which are tiny jumping organisms estimated to have 50,000 to 65,000 species worldwide,” she said.

Skirtich focused his research on beetles under the order Coleoptera, which includes over 70,000 species. He found a specimen on his first caving trip.

Larzelere and Skirtich are now working in Prof. Urcuyo's lab to examine invertebrate life under a microscope and properly classify their findings.

The benefits of the program continue well beyond the summer, as Skirtich said, “The student-faculty mentoring part of the research is so important to me,” he said. “Being able to have a faculty member guide and show you what to expect prepares you for your future. I am grateful to have a mentor and adviser like Prof. Urcuyo.”

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