Peyton Thomas has always been curious about her surroundings. Whether that was in her work as a marine biologist, or in her training as a runner, that propensity for questioning has pushed Thomas into the unknown.
Thomas started running to train for her high-school volleyball team in Roswell, Georgia. When she found that she preferred running to court sports, she stuck with it. Thomas explored the trails and lakes around her house, which nourished her curiosity about the natural world.
Trail running changed the way I move through spaces,” says Thomas. “I’ve never really liked walking, and running means you can see cool places in a shorter time!
“Trail running changed the way I move through spaces,” says Thomas, 25, of Wilmington, North Carolina. “I’ve never really liked walking, and running means you can see cool places in a shorter time!”
Her love for all things outside inspired her to pursue a degree in Environmental Science at Baylor University, where she began researching the impact of microplastics on several fish species native to Texas. Microplastics are small pieces of plastic that come from a variety of sources, including from larger pieces of plastic like bottles, fishing nets or plastic bags that enter into marine ecosystems. Since plastics degrade slowly over hundreds or thousands of years, they can build up in marine organisms and cause problems throughout ecosystems.
“I have always been more environmentally oriented in my interests, so plastic pollution was an easy and very impassioned avenue of research for me to get into,” says Thomas.
She loved her undergraduate research, but wanted to dig deeper into the physiology of specific organisms. Says Thomas, “There are so many complexities, you can’t treat every species the same or even every individual the same, just like humans.”
Thomas’ current research at the University of North Carolina Wilmington is broad in scope, and uses marine species like the Epaulette Shark and the Little Skate (not as cute as it sounds, but charming nonetheless!) as models for how environmental stresses like pollution or warmer temperatures affect coastline species.
On The Run
The same curiosity that drives Thomas to investigate the marine world of the Little Skate pushes her to explore her potential on the trails.
“I have the same innate feelings when I want to know what’s at the top of the mountain peak or at the end of the trail that I have when I want to find a particular organism during field collection or understand how a fish combats oxidative stress,” says Thomas.
Seeing these impacts firsthand have inspired Thomas to use trail running as a platform to raise the alarm on climate action and climate justice.
With that same curiosity comes responsibility. Thomas’ research has shown that elevated coastal temperatures and the prevalence of microplastics have negatively impacted the fish species that she researches, which act as a canary in a coal mine for other sensitive species. Seeing these impacts firsthand have inspired Thomas to use trail running as a platform to raise the alarm on climate action and climate justice.
“I love that I can have connections to both land and water that bring about a sense of responsibility and stewardship for the places that I love to learn more about,” she says.
That connection and support from fellow trail runner and marine-biology enthusiast Clare Gallagher brought Protect Our Winters’ (POW) work to Thomas’ attention. Now, Thomas has joined POW’s trail team, a coalition of elite runners from all over the U.S. to bring attention to the environmental issues facing trail runners—and coastal fish species—all over the globe. Specific areas of focus include public land access, resource extraction and lobbying for renewable resource and climate change policy.
Tales from the Trails
Thomas is currently working on her Ph.D. dissertation at UNC Wilmington university. Besides a rich array of juvenile shark species to research, Thomas loves the ample opportunity for trail adventures that her home state provides.
“In several hours you can travel from dense forest canopies in the mountains through foothills, rocky rooted hardwood forests, to sandhills and coastal plains,” she says. “The state has endless opportunities for recreation on land or in the water. You can follow rivers all the way from the mountains to the sea.”
Tonight, August 27, 2020, in collaboration with POW, “Tales from the Trails,” she’ll share her favorite things about running and research and the importance of trail runners getting involved with climate action.