Veterinary student Alex Marsh arrives on campus deeply immersed in tropical rainforest research
January 23, 2023
Handling scores of tropical snakes isn’t a prerequisite for entry into the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. But Alex Marsh checks that box, easily.
Marsh is a first-year veterinary student, but already has impressive credentials and experience researching wildlife in the Amazon rainforest of Peru.
Marsh, from Ligonier, Pennsylvania, has made four trips with Project Amazonas since 2018 to document and catalog species in the Santa Cruz Forest Reserve outside the northeastern Peruvian city of Iquitos, in an effort to collect data for studies on how human impact is affecting biodiversity in the rainforest.
For Marsh, that has also meant collecting an extensive array of photographs of colorful reptiles and amphibians, among hundreds of animal species documented by the research team he joined.
“Every single snake that we found, we caught it and measured it, we took information on it,” Marsh said. “So we have a really big data bank at this point, probably 200 snakes.”
Before even stepping on the Virginia Tech campus this fall for veterinary school after getting an undergraduate biology degree at Florida Gulf Coast University, Marsh was already involved with multiple academic publications of the research findings.
Marsh and fellow researchers, led by Florida Gulf Coast biology faculty Charles “billY” Gunnels and Matt Metcalf, would take two hikes a day, each around 800 feet, one in the morning and one in the evening, measuring and documenting whatever animals they could see and briefly capture along the way.
The teams did this work at three different habitats ranging from primary to secondary regenerated forest to open pastureland.
“It kind of looked like ‘Jurassic Park,’ ” Marsh said of the pasture setting. “Rolling hills, grass up to your knees and palm trees sprouting out. I’d be humming the ‘Jurassic Park’ theme.”
Marsh explained that much of the research is documenting the wildlife before an expected surge of human population relocating to the edge of the rainforest as construction of a new bridge opens up migration from the Iquitos metropolis, which, with nearly half a million people, is the largest city in the world not accessible from the outside by highway.
“They’re thinking that there's going to be a lot of human disturbance,” Marsh said. “So we're looking at this as basically like a before study. … It’ll be very interesting to go back after the bridge is completely built, after everyone moves out and development pushes up to the edge of that reserve to see how that actually impacts the community in the area.”
Being cut off from the internet during the periods of field research meant problem-solving for Marsh and the team was much more than just “OK, Google, how can I fix it?,” he said.
It also meant being out of touch when a major earthquake hit Peru.
“I woke up and I thought my hut was sliding into a pond,” Marsh recalled. “I had no idea what I was going through. When I came back out of the forest and into the city, my mom, when I called, she asked ‘Are you alive?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, why?’ And she tells me there was an earthquake. Then, I connected the dots.”
Marsh is hoping to combine his studies at the veterinary college with his photography skills to enter veterinary radiology.
“I love wildlife photography. I love animals,” Marsh said. “And I love the medicine part of it. I kind of fell in love with the medicine a little bit later than most people. I hated the idea of being a vet at first. And then I had an internship that I was a little bit forced into my senior year of high school. And it turned out to be the best thing ever. I love being at the clinic.”
Peru’s rainforest provided experience with animals Marsh is unlikely to see brought into a typical U.S. veterinary clinic. Besides the many reptiles, amphibians, and insects he helped document, camera traps caught ocelots, jaguars, and pumas roaming near where they conducted their research.
“We definitely ran into some dangerous, dangerous animals,” Marsh said.
The snakes weren’t too daunting for Marsh, who said he grew up handling snakes, including a rattlesnake at age 13, under the supervision of an experienced handler of venomous snakes.
“I think the hardest part is figuring out what is and isn’t dangerous, because they have a lot of mimicry down there,” Marsh said. “They have a lot of different coral snake species, and they have the longest viper on the planet. It’s called the bushmaster and gets up to 12 feet long.” His team found one that was 8 to 9 feet long, he said.
Even if Marsh is comfortable handling snakes, there is a great deal of discomfort from heat and insect bites and stings involved in rain forest research, but Marsh says it’s all worth it.
“It’s like a love-hate relationship, where you love every second of it, but you also hate the fact that you’re getting bit all the time,” Marsh said. “But then you see something cool and you completely forget that you’re in pain from bee stings or ant stings.”
It will be even more worth it to Marsh if his work helps foster new appreciation for the Amazon rainforest.
“I think the Amazon as a whole offers so much,” Marsh said. “It’s this massive rainforest that has a huge river running through it. And it is being destroyed throughout multiple countries and slowly being developed, whether that's logging or farming or anything like that, and it's definitely one of the most important natural resources that we have on the planet.
“One of the biggest challenges in protecting the Amazon is getting people to care about it. ...I hope some of my photos can help show people the beauty of the Amazon, but I also hope that the research can help show the importance and the actual impact that people have on biodiversity in the Amazon.”