It's not every day a scientist finds a new life form, no matter how hard one might look. That's why the discovery by a local veterinary technician is worth kudos from colleagues -- at least.
Casey Plummer, 29, grew up in Whitehouse and received degrees from both Tyler Junior College and The University of Texas at Tyler. A hometown girl, she found a position at Caldwell Zoo in 2004.
"It was during a routine fecal exam of our Attwater's Prairie Chickens that I saw something and thought, 'Wow. I've never seen this before,'" Ms. Plummer said.
What she saw was a protozoan parasite, and that meant two things. First, she he had to positively identify the organism; and secondly, she had to begin treating the endangered chickens to eradicate the parasite.
The first task was a challenge, considering the microscopic living thing had not been identified by anyone, including experts in parasitology.
"I actually found it in April of 2007," she said. "It took almost a year to determine it was a new protozoan. When I found out, I was so excited! When they told me it had never been identified before, I was over the moon about it, really."
The protozoan, named Eimeria Attwaterii after the chickens, was the first new life form discovered at Caldwell Zoo, and Ms. Plummer's achievement at 29 years old is rare.
To date, zoo technicians have not found the parasite in any other fowl species or related species to Attwater's chickens.
"It is something people will keep an eye on," she said. "I am one of those people who wouldn't just let something like that slide. I hadn't seen it before, so I checked it out."
Ms. Plummer enjoys telling people about her discovery, but more so, enjoys telling the history of the chickens and why it is important to keep them healthy and free of disease.
"I cannot say I have a favorite animal here, that would be impossible to answer," she said. "But I do feel strongly about the preservation of Attwater's chickens.
"So many people have no idea they even exist, but they have been endangered since 1967. Only five zoos have programs for captive propagation and re-releasing. We hope to have an exhibit open to the public this spring."
Ms. Plummer said the Attwater's Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge, approximately 60 miles west of Houston, is one of the largest remnants of coastal prairie habitat remaining in southeast Texas and home to one of the last populations of the critically endangered Attwater's prairie chickens.
Formerly occupying 6 million acres of coastal prairie habitat, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Attwater's prairie chicken was once one of the most abundant resident birds of the Texas and Louisiana tall grass prairie ecosystem. Presently, less than 200,000 fragmented acres of coastal prairie habitat remain, leaving the birds scattered among two Texas counties.
Those facts make Ms. Plummer's discovery more important, as parasites can cause serious problems ultimately leading to the death of the chickens.
"You know, when I first told people about what I found, they asked me if I was going to get any money for it," she laughed. "I am NOT getting any money for it, but it is still exciting.
"My sister was so proud of me that she had a T-shirt made that had a picture of the protozoan that said, 'I discovered this species. What have you done?' I loved it!"
For more information on the Attwater's prairie chicken or education programming at the Caldwell Zoo, call 903-593-0121 or log onto www.caldwellzoo.org.