Lions, Tigers, and Bears... Literally

Generally my absence from this site means one of two things: I'm either really busy and can't be bothered to upload photos and stories, or I'm not doing anything worth noting.  When I was at the Smithsonian, I didn't discuss the research much, mostly because the clouded leopard project is part of an international consortium and I was only at liberty to discuss my intern project.  However, for the past eight weeks I've been out of the field, but I'm getting ready to go back!

I left Whitefish in the middle of March and returned to Houston.  I love coming home.  I rarely spend a lot of time with my parents, and since my stepfather's near-fatal case of pneumonia this Christmas, I've been looking forward to a few weeks at home.  I was also able to visit North Carolina, where I grew up and went to college (Go Pack), to see family and a few close friends.  Since returning from Whitefish, however, I've definitely missed the deep-snow environment and the anticipation of coming up to a trap in hopes of finding a bobcat.  Roberta has closed her final winter field season and is getting closer to writing her dissertation! Unfortunately M5 and M6 never showed up, so the data from their collars is lost.  Hopefully these two cats are doing well in the forests of the Flathead and have not come to any harm, but that is a likelihood in this field.

I've been in the application and interview process since late January, and I'm so excited to begin the summer season in two weeks.  I came very close to accepting a research position on mountain lion and bobcat telemetry, and I was very interested in a study on bluebirds (birds are under-appreciated, you know).  Instead, I am heading to the Ozarks to work on the Missouri black bear project!  So, I've literally worked with lions, tigers, and now bears (Carolina Tiger Rescue adopted three lions last fall... I need to upload the photos!).

Why bears, you ask?  Isn't this woman like the future crazy cat lady? Well, probably.  I really enjoy carnivore, specifically feline, ecology, but the larger North American mammals share similar habitats as well as drawing parallels in the methods used to study the biology and ecology of these animals.  Ultimately, I'm hoping to collaborate with a research institution within the next year on a master's thesis involving bobcat or mountain lion physiological response and home-range patterns, but the techniques used for such a project can be learned from any mesocarnivore or carnivore project.  Specifically, non-invasive techniques are on the rise for learning about wildlife, and the project I will join in two weeks aims to determine the black bear population in the state of Missouri.  Employed through Mississippi State University, I will be collecting hair samples for DNA assessment to determine the population of resident animals in a study site encompassing about 20,000 km squared (how do you do the superscript on this site?!).  More or less, this project is a bear census. Since we won't be able to walk up to a bear den and ask, " how many are you?" like in a human census, the project is employing non-invasive hair snare collection stations. In summary, these stations involve the use of barbed-wire being wrapped around a group of trees (think geometric shapes) with something to lure them past the wire, such as old donuts or fish oil (I've had extensive experience with fish oil, and let me tell you: next to cheetah feces, there is nothing worse than the smell of fish oil. Unless you ask my cats.).  Don't worry- the barbed wire is not nearly as horrible as it sounds!  Bears, like so many wild animals, have two coats: a thick, dense undercoat that serves to insulate and protect, and a longer outer coat that is water resistant.  If a bear walks under a barb on the wire, then, he or she would not have nearly the reaction were you or I to come across it.  The idea centers around the bears being drawn to the smell of the lure and leaving a few hair samples on the barbed wire for us to come and collect.

Unfortunately, bears were extirpated from Missouri by 1940, mostly due to unregulated hunting and trapping as well as urbanization and intolerance.  Bear reintroductions in Arkansas began in the 1960's and black bears have recolonized north into Missouri since.   The Missouri Department of Conservation, Missouri Department of Natural Resources, United States Forest Service, and the National Park Service have collaborated with the hopes of determining the current bear population in southern and central Missouri in order to mitigate future human-wildlife conflict and to also learn about and encourage the conservation of suitable black bear habitat.

We will be working under Clay Wilton, a graduate student at Mississippi State University.  Per his involvement with this project, he is studying population dynamics, resource selection, and movements of black bears in Missouri.  Although it is not a guarantee, we are hoping to put out the remaining radio collars for his project this summer, meaning that we will be trapping bears in a similar fashion to that of the bobcat project.  I'm quite excited!

For more information about the project, as well as to see some cool photos, visit the project website at:

Photo credit:  The new photo is from a National Geographic wallpaper. Unfortunately none of my bear photos from Montana are very clear, so I'll have to wait until I get to Missouri to snap some better ones!