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Faculty and Students Investigate Impact of Fracking on Habitat

CONWAY, Ark. (January 26, 2015) – Hendrix biology faculty and students recently published results of their collaborative research in Environmental Management.

The article titled “Habitat Loss and Modification Due to Gas Development in the Fayetteville Shale” is written by biology professors Dr. Maureen R. McClung ’01 and Dr. Matthew D. Moran and students Chloe C. Benichou ’14, Brandon Cox ’16 and Rachel L. Wells ’15. The project is based on research the group conducted during the 2013-2014 academic year.

The research examines how the oil and gas industry’s hydraulic fracturing process, called fracking, affects ecological habitats.

Using satellite imagery from Google Earth, students collected area measurements of land use changes from a campus computer lab.

That students could do ecological research without having to set foot in the field demonstrates a technological side of ecology that is unfamiliar to many, McClung said.

Data collection for the project was “a long and tedious process” that could not have done in a timely manner without the long hours put in by the three students, she added.

“As an undergraduate researcher, I focused primarily on the empirical work. This meant lots of time spent using satellite software to map out the various land types we were assessing and, in turn, analyzing this data to quantify how the land uses were changing over time whether it be natural or due to human intervention,” Cox said.

Moran called the study a “perfect project” for undergraduate students interested in conservation.

Cox agreed.

“Because the land use research covered in the article spanned one school year, I was able to play a relevant role in its progression from initial procedural decisions to presenting preliminary data and publishing the final paper,” he said. “I believe that too often student researchers are solely used as a tool with the function of generating data as fast as possible, which doesn’t contribute to their ability to do research, to think scientifically. Our team created a space for everyone's ideas and the professors made sure to include the undergraduates in all levels of the research process - the respect they showed taught me more about how science is done pragmatically than any class I have taken.”

“This research required many consecutive hours sitting in front of a computer looking at satellite imagery. With all this time, I was able to reflect on the ‘Why am I doing this?’ sorts of questions at length. In doing so, I came to better realize some things about myself and the career path I am on,” Cox added. “For one, I learned to appreciate the value in my work as a product of my care for the environment and how it can serve to highlight how anthropocentrism is changing our world. On the same note, I found that I should only be pursuing graduate school or higher education if I am truly passionate for the subject material, as opposed to doing it because it is what ‘should’ be done.”

The group selected the Fayetteville Shale to study because of its proximity to Hendrix and because it is one of the first developments in a habitat that includes temperate forests, Moran said. The area includes many federal and state “species of concern,” as well, he added.

“Unless you live or work in an area where fracking is occurring, it's difficult to understand just how severe the impact to the land can be. Our study quantifies that impact,” McClung said.

The study is also unique in that it looks at what the total impact on land use could be for a shale area that is nearing the end of its development, McClung said. Gas wells have been in place in the Fayetteville Shale since 2004. “Other areas (like Pennsylvania and Ohio) still have years of exploration and production ahead of them, so our data could inform decision makers as to what the ultimate disturbance to the landscape could be.”

There are ways to mitigate the ecological impact of fracking, such as better placement of gas wells, Moran said.

“For an industry that wants to grow, that’s in their best interest,” he said.

“We hope these numbers will add to the conversation between scientists, landowners, and policy-makers to help make decisions on how fracking is regulated in the future,” McClung said.

Read the article online here. For a reprint of the article, contact Dr. Moran at

Founded in 1876, Hendrix College is a national leader in engaged liberal arts and sciences education. This year, Hendrix was named the country’s #1 “Up and Coming” liberal arts college and #8 in the nation for “Best Undergraduate Teaching” by U.S. News and World Report.  Hendrix is featured in the 2015 Fiske Guide to Colleges, Forbes magazine's list of America's Top Colleges, the 2014 Princeton Review’s The Best 378 Colleges, and the latest edition of Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think about Colleges. Hendrix has been affiliated with the United Methodist Church since 1884. For more information, visit