RADFORD, Va. (WFXR) — Some of the biggest animal mysteries in the wilds of Virginia are being solved in a lab in Radford.

Dr. Tara Pelletier is an assistant professor of biology at Radford University. One of her areas of research is identifying previously undiscovered animal species.

“I study biodiversity,” said Pelletier as she gestured around her lab at Radford. “Our big picture questions are understanding what species are found where, and what are the evolutionary processes that shape those biodiversity patterns.”

In this day and age, science is still discovering new species of animals. It is going on right here in Virginia, and even includes mammals.

“Mammals are a really well-studied group, so the fact that we’re seeing a lot of biodiversity in mammals means that there’s way more hidden diversity out there,” Pelletier said.

So, where is that hidden biodiversity in the Commonwealth?

Two important factors come into play: Geography and size.

Geography is key because Virginia still has a lot of remote locations, like mountainous regions, where humans rarely go. That means isolated populations of animals can live there without any humans ever knowing it.

Size matters, too. In this case, smaller is better because small animals living in remote places can be difficult to find.

So, what mammals fit that description?

“This one represents the rodents,” Pelletier said as she pulled up a computer screen showing various recognized and predicted species. “Voles, shrews, small mammals; these are the opossums here, so mostly the small things.”

Dr. Tara Pelletier working in her lab at Radford University. (Photo: George Noleff/WFXR News)

The work Pelletier does is conducted in the field and in the laboratory. When in the field, observations are made and DNA is collected through various means. That DNA is brought back to the lab for analysis. The job is nowhere close to being finished.

“Just the fact that we’ve seen this much hidden diversity in mammals means that we reallystill have a lot of work left to do to document all of the biodiversity that exists on our planet,” Pelletier said.

Each discovery she makes in her research adds to our understanding of our world, and gives us a better idea of how to protect it.

As Pelletier added, “Biodiversity has both innate and monetary value, but we can’t protect it if we don’t know what’s there.”