Shannon Behmke
B.S. Biological Sciences, Florida State University
e-mail: sbehmke*at*mix.wvu.edu

I am a graduate student in the Peace Corps Masters International (PCMI) program at West Virginia University earning my degree in Wildlife & Fisheries Resources.  My advisor is Dr. Todd Katzner and my research focuses on using New World vultures to better understand the degree to which chronic lead exposure persists in North American wildlife.  This will primarily be accomplished through bone and liver collection to determine chronic and recent lead exposure within each bird.  Additionally, stable lead isotopic analysis will be performed to determine the potential sources of environmental lead.  Information acquired through this research will be used to understand how pervasive this toxic heavy metal is within eastern North American ecosystems.

Lead that enters the environment as spent ammunition has had disastrous consequences for some birds of prey including California condors and bald eagles.  In 1991, a ban was passed in the USA to eliminate the use of lead shot in the hunting of waterfowl.  Although this ban allowed for bald eagle populations to recover, raptors that feed primarily on terrestrial vertebrates are still threatened by environmental lead and determining the general degree to which lead persists in the environment is crucial in managing healthy raptorial populations, as well as understanding modern wildlife and human health concerns.

My research focuses on lead levels in two common and widespread scavengers, the turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) and the black vulture (Coragyps atratus).  Turkey and black vultures are able to withstand lead levels that have been found to have devastating physiological effects in other raptors.  This therefore makes these species ideal environmental sentinels of chronic lead exposure. 

Prior to graduate school, I was a Veterinary Volunteer for 2 years at the Tallahassee Animal Service Center and received the President’s Volunteer Service Award.  I also studied abroad in the Republic of Panama for twelve months and have worked through the Florida Cooperate Fish & Wildlife Research Unit.  Through the Florida Coop, I was a field technician in the study of foraging behavior in breeding pairs of the federally endangered snail kite throughout the Kissimmee chain of lakes in Central Florida.  Currently, I am a Protected Areas Facilitator Peace Corps Volunteer serving in the high-Andes Mountains in Junin, Junin, Peru.  In site, I am working on a collaborative conservation program for the endemic and critically endangered “Rana gigante de Junin” (Telmatobius macrostomus) with Junin’s Servicio Nacional de Areas Naturales Protegidas (SERNANP) and the Denver Zoological Foundation.