University of Vermont

University Communications

Field Research in Mongolia Informs Senior's Thesis

Frances Iannucci conducting research in Mongolia
From a remote research station, senior Frances Iannucci sets out on Mongolia's Lake Hovsgal, to collect specimens. (Photo courtesy of Iannucci)

Fly fishing in Mongolia for the world’s largest trout species, Hucho taimen, may be a fly fisherman’s dream, but for Frances Iannucci, a senior honors student in UVM’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, it was all about serious research last summer. Mongolia’s inland rivers, including the Eg-Uur, are some of the last strongholds for taimen, an endemic trout that can reach up to six feet and weigh 230 pounds.

“Mongolia was fascinating,” Iannucci says. “Standing in Ulaan Bator, the capital, you can see where the city just stops and the grassy steppes begin. There is only one fisheries biologist in all of Mongolia. I felt that our team was a bridge to conservation there.”

Iannucci, who began her college career as an environmental science major, switched to fisheries after a summer working for the Rubenstein Ecosystem Science Lab on Lake Champlain. “I always knew I was more interested in what lived in the water than the water itself,” she said. 

Professor Jason Stockwell’s research work on food webs in Lake Champlain, got her started on climate impacts to the lake’s fisheries.  Specifically, she looked at cyano-bacteria blooms. Blooms increase with nutrient pollution and warming waters, possibly disrupting natural diversity and displacing higher value food sources. Her UVM thesis was shaped by her study of taimen in Mongolia.

“There are major gaps in knowledge of taimen,” Iannucci says. “Taimen use a variety of foods, from fish and aquatic insects, to terrestrial foods -- even birds and mammals, for example, but little is known about their relative importance.” By looking at stable carbon isotope signatures, she hoped to identify the taimen’s principal foods. “Trout are coldwater specialists. As waters warm and food sources shift, will taimen adapt?”

The remote field station -- a few yurts and a small lab -- brought together American and Mongolian students and senior researchers. “The collaboration made it especially fun,” Iannucci says.

Mornings, she took a metal boat upstream to the best fishing, returning to camp with her catch for the collection of tissue samples. And fieldwork invariably comes with unanticipated duties -- Iannucci kept the neighbor’s goats away from a solar oven used to dry samples.

Last September, the UVM senior traveled to Montana to present a poster on her Mongolian work at the prestigious Wild Trout Symposium. After graduating this spring, she'll join UVM professor Breck Bowden’s lab in Alaska, looking at the influence of melting permafrost on nutrient cycling in Alaskan streams. Eventually, she hopes to go to graduate school, adding that, someday, she’d love to revisit Mongolia.

Iannucci will present her work at UVM's Student Research Conference, Thursday, April 23, at 1:30 p.m. in the Davis Center's Livak Ballroom. The conference, which shows the work of more than 300 students, will take place from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on the fourth floor of the Davis Center.