New Year, New Adventure

It's been an intense few months, and they have passed far more quickly than I realized. My first semester of graduate school came and went in a whirlwind, and I've been busy with fun classes, new friends, and a few adventures.

Primarily, I've been working on the experimental design for my thesis. Ultimately, I've learned what NOT to do in science in terms of creating and implementing an experiment, and it's been super duper cool to sort it all out. In a nutshell, I'll be examining the effects of the landscape on the gene flow of bobcats, gray foxes, and coyotes in the Panhandle of Texas. Specifically, I'll get to look at the escarpment, which is the region of the landscape that separates the High Plains from the Rolling Plains in Texas and is part of the second largest canyon system in the United States. Basically, I'll be sniffing around a mini-Grand Canyon looking for mesocarnivores. I start my field efforts in two weeks, and I can't wait to collect samples for laboratory analysis! I am most excited about seeing wildlife again... I've been in the classroom most of the semester, with the exception of a few test scat transect runs with undergrads. It's going to be a seriously intense field effort because I'll be taking classes at the same time, but Mark and I will be helping one another out.

Mark will be looking at the genetic structure and ecology of ringtails, as well as investigating similar aspects of gene flow in raccoons and skunks. I've only seen a ringtail once, and I have zero problem being his field assistant if that means I get to handle one of those little guys! Mark has a lot more trapping experience than I do, so I'm looking forward to brushing up on my injection skills from undergrad and hopefully becoming super efficient at catching every living animal out there!

Although I've primarily been in the classroom and office this semester, I did manage to sneak in a few more adventures:

Lena Thurmond is another graduate student in my lab, and she's looking at the use of anthropogenic structure in a bobcat population. She let me help out on one of her captures... it's been over a year since I've seen a bobcat, and I was so elated!

A few graduate students and undergrad volunteers with our advisor, Dr. Matlack, and one of Lena's cats. This big male was radio collared for Lena's research. For me, it was really cool to see firsthand the wide-open habitat these cats are navigating- it's a far cry from the montane forests of the northwest US!

I was mildly concerned one morning when an undergrad threw herself out of my moving vehicle, but it was to grab this 4.5 ft long bull snake out of the road. I don't have a lot of experience with snakes, so I was pretty stoked to handle her and not get bitten.

 This landscape is just awesome. I'm sitting on top of some huge rocks within Palo Duro Canyon State Park on a morning I took an undergrad out to search for scat. So far, my searches have yielded primarily coyote scat, but here I'm collecting a gray fox sample. Since coyotes are difficult to live-trap, I'll be using scat to extract DNA for that species.

Like I said, this landscape is just amazing! No trees, deep fingers of canyon digging into the earth, crazy dirt formations shooting into the sky, and plentiful wildlife. This was my first "field day" as a grad student on my own project, and these two undergrads were crazy enough to go out with me! They helped me run a road scat transect (because wildlife often travel on roads) and learned about scat and track identification of carnivores. 

We'll be tightening up our schedule for trapping effort next week, and I'll be coming back to civilization most nights, meaning very soon that I will be once again posting cool photos and recounting tales of my glorious mishaps!

I'm currently sitting at my grandmother's kitchen table in North Carolina. Being a tough biologist and all, I opted to not get the flu shot, so I naturally came down with easily the worst flu virus I've ever had. I rang in the new year with NyQuil and saltines (ok, and a little bubbly), but it's gonna be a good one! I really am proud to say that I accomplished my goal to enter graduate school in 2012, and I'm lucky to have been able to design my own project from the ground up based on my own idea. I've already done good things this semester, and I have amazing prospects for spring and summer. As I sit here watching cardinals, the state bird of North Carolina, dance about on the front porch, I'm rejuvenated by and excited for the wildlife I'm sure to encounter this year. And, I got my rabies vaccination, so no one has to worry!

Happy New Year friends!