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Some species enjoy the city life more than others

By Jacob Summerville
On November 10, 2017

Oliver Ljustina shares some insight about ecology during his symposium. Jacob Summerville/The Lion's Roar

Biology graduate student Oliver Ljustina presented his research on wildlife’s adaptation to urban environments.

A part of the “Science on Tap” series, “Urban Ecology: Life in Your Backyard” took place on Tuesday, Nov. 7 at 7 p.m. at Tope La Restaurant. Ljustina explained his master’s thesis research that was conducted in Kenner, Louisiana about which snake species could thrive in city canals.

“Since I was a kid, I’ve always loved animals, snakes in particular,” said Ljustina. “The passion has always stuck. I’m excited to make my living doing it. So I’m trying to anyways. It’s brutal, and it’s competitive, but it can be done.”

Ljustina’s presentation included information about how various animals, including various species of birds, stray cats, racoons and snakes, find food sources and shelter. He also discussed where some of these animals live and how they may contract diseases.

“His research is very interesting just for the fact that not a whole lot of people actually study this,” said biology graduate student Elizabeth Taylor. “From the papers that I have read, the people that have studied it haven’t really found that much evidence of anything. So it’s really interesting. It’s very original, especially for a master’s thesis.”

Ljustina’s thesis revolved around the abundance of four species of snakes, stating that diamondback water snakes and Mississippi green water snakes would be most plentiful in Kenner’s canals while yellow-bellied water snakes and banded water snakes would be rarer. His research showed that the banded water snakes were absent while the yellow-bellied water snakes were the second most abundant.

Ljustina explained how his prior research in Miami correlated with his results.

“I had done some preliminary work looking at reptile and amphibian species compositions in canals in Miami before I came here,” said Ljustina. “There, Florida green water snakes and brown water snakes, closely related to the Mississippi green water snake and diamondback water snake, respectively, were present in urban canals, but Florida water snakes, a subspecies of the banded water snake, were absent in urban areas.”

After the presentation, Taylor discussed what she thought of Ljustina’s presentation.

“Oliver has always been very well-spoken, and his diction is very good,” said Taylor. “I’ve always been very jealous of it. I thought he did very well because I think this is the first symposium he’s ever given.”

Ljustina explained his plans concerning his research and future studies.

“I’m trying to get into a PhD program at UM, and I’d like to expand on this topic,” said Ljustina. “I want to study the same system in south Florida with the water snakes down there where I already have some baseline data. What I’d really like to tackle on, which is what I wasn’t able to address in my master’s research, is how these populations compare to populations in more natural areas. So that’s really the big thing for me right now, and then begin to approach mechanisms as to why banded water snakes aren’t there.”

Ljustina was offered this opportunity from professor of biological sciences Dr. Brian Crother. Ljustina said that he was chosen possibly because “it’s an easily digestible topic, maybe something that a lot of people aren’t aware of.”

He also explained the message of his research.

“Even in the face of horrid destruction, there’s still these fascinating animals that are around you,” said Ljustina. “Just go outside and look for them. It doesn’t take a whole lot of looking. You can find them. You know, a lot of people are losing their connection to nature, so they say. I think that doesn’t have to happen. It’s really as easy as flipping around in your backyard or going fishing in your pond. You’ll see all kinds of cool stuff.”

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