At the University of Vermont (UVM), senior Ben Simmons ’23 became a leader in the Wildlife and Fisheries Biology program which earned him a prestigious award from the Northeast Section of The Wildlife Society, an international network of more than 11,000 wildlife professionals. This spring, the Section presented Ben with the P.F. English Award, first given in 1974 and awarded annually within the region to an outstanding college senior in a wildlife major.
Ben’s numerous research and professional experiences more than fulfilled criteria for this honor, and he is the first UVM student to win the award in its 50-year history.
“Ben has been an extraordinary student in our program, and we are thrilled that he is our first recipient of the P.F. English Award,” said Professor Jed Murdoch of the UVM Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources. “The award is truly a reflection of Ben’s dedication to wildlife science, exceptional academic and professional experiences, and commitment to serving others in the field.”
As far back as he can remember, Ben had a fascination with wildlife and enjoyed birding and herping, which is like birding but with reptiles and amphibians. Growing up in urban Kansas City, Missouri, the accessibility and abundance of wild places in Vermont appealed to him, and he chose to study wildlife biology at UVM.
Ben also appreciated that the “ologies,” like mammalogy, herpetology, and ornithology (study of birds), and dendrology (study of trees), were all part of the curriculum.
“These courses provided identification knowledge that sparked my interests in community ecology,” said Ben. “I have always felt confident that my future profession would be wildlife related, and I feel that my talents are best suited for research.”
For two years, Ben served as president of the UVM Wildlife and Fisheries Society—a student chapter of The Wildlife Society—and secretary and vice-president for the Audubon UVM Chapter. He helped expand student involvement and developed new projects and partnerships to benefit students and state wildlife colleagues and to address real-world wildlife issues.
New Mexico research experience becomes UVM honors thesis
As a UVM Honors College student, Ben investigated the diets of two exotic ungulates (animals with hooves), African oryx and feral horse, in central New Mexico for his senior thesis research. He was accepted into a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates with the University of New Mexico at the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge during summer 2022.
As Ben learned in his coursework and field experiences, exotic species, like oryx and feral horses, are an important part of many contemporary ecosystems. To provide wildlife managers with more detailed information about these species’ diets, their overlap with native ungulates, and their broader impacts in Chihuahuan desert habitat, Ben spent the summer collecting the two animals’ fecal samples. He analyzed samples in the laboratory using DNA metabarcoding to discern what plant species the animals are eating.
“Understanding their diets is important, as ungulates are known to have intense impacts on plant diversity and abundance in an ecosystem,” said Ben.
He used stable carbon and nitrogen isotope analyses to confirm his results and distinguish between browsing of leaves, shoots, and fruits of taller woody shrubs or grazing on grass and lower vegetation. He evaluated samples collected before and during the monsoon season (June through September) to assess impacts of seasonal vegetation changes on dietary overlap among ungulate species.
“As the North American monsoon season becomes more irregular due to climate change,” said Ben, “it is important to understand how these exotic species’ diets may shift seasonally and how this might affect their competition for food with native ungulates, such as mule deer or pronghorn.”
Ben’s research revealed that pre-monsoon, both oryx and feral horses primarily graze, but with monsoon onset, their diets become more distinct. By late in the season, horses narrow their diets to mostly graze plants adapted to warmer conditions, while oryx broaden their diets to incorporate browsing and more plants adapted to cooler environments.
“These patterns imply that oryx may compete with mule deer and pronghorn, which are considered browsers,” said Ben. “Additionally, because both oryx and horses mostly graze, they could deplete grass and wildfire incidence, which might exacerbate encroachment of shrubs in some regions.”
Ben’s findings will help to support effective management of these species, particularly if they experience population growth.
Ben found more research opportunities in Vermont and beyond. He worked with Assistant Professor Brittany Mosher, a wildlife disease expert, on a new observation of a parasitic flatworm on salamanders in Vermont, and at hunting season deer check stations, he collected deer tissue samples for Covid virus analysis. He will be co- or lead author on scientific articles related to this work, as well as to his ungulate research and a project on global assessment of Madagascan flying fox conservation with a scientist at the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
With the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, Ben, who minored in Geospatial Technologies, mapped and modeled bat species distribution and activity to help in bat management. With a state turtle conservation program, he monitored lake beaches for nests and organized volunteers to help prepare next season’s nesting sites.
Ben’s prolific professional and leadership experience added up to additional awards. He received the New England Outdoor Writers Association Award and the Rubenstein School Wildlife and Fisheries Biology program’s outstanding senior achievement award.
After graduation, Ben will get his research articles ready for submission to science journals—a rare accomplishment for an undergraduate. He will also apply for a Fulbright Scholarship to further his wildlife research experience.