Field Efforts

A lot has happened in the past month. We have been so busy! Mark and I started our respective field efforts together in the middle of January, and we've been going non-stop through a combination of field trapping and office slaving. The beginning of the season was darkened with the passing of my Granny, a 91 year old southern aristocrat with a sassy attitude and mischievous smile. We will always miss her feisty nature and love of the country.

Mark and I began the season nonetheless excited about what we might encounter, and it's been a little crazy. In a 16-day trapping effort we've caught five foxes, five raccoons, one skunk, and a few narrow misses with those damn bobcats and ringtails... and at least one feral hog. Those damn, invasive hogs!

It's been an awesome skills test for both of us to recall our experiences with blood drawing. Of course, we both visited the veterinarian who sits on our IACUC committee (the committee that approves our animal-use tactics and ensure we are complying with animal welfare regulations, etc) for a refresher prior to going out in the field. Here is the general breakdown of how things have been going in Palo Duro Canyon State Park:

This was Day 1 when we were setting traps. This little gem is the first of my bobcat traps (photo taken before the masterpiece was actually complete/covered). This was when I was still hopeful that catching those silly cats was going to be [relatively, maybe, oh god hopefully] easy. 

First trap night! This little Gray Fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) was a feisty little lady. She was relatively young, likely in her first year, and easily drawn into our trap with the tasty sardines we use as bait. Gray foxes are really cool little critters, being well adapted to a variety of environments but preferring dense cover to avoid predators (particularly bobcats and coyotes). Gray foxes are omnivores and eat a variety of small rodents, opportunistic meals like roadkill or cached kills from other predators, as well as a lot of plant material and berries. The majority of gray fox scat I have found in this area is primarily composed of cactus berry remains. These little guys don't really live too long in the wild, between 2-4 years, and are adept at climbing trees and dashing about on the cliffs of the canyon. This was my first fox encounter! Mark was super helpful in walking me through the anesthetization process, as it had been a while since I'd last processed wildlife. I love this picture because the fox is kind of 'looking into the future' because of the anesthetic. This photo was snapped after taking morphological measurements and obtaining genetic material. All captures are monitored closely for changes in temperature, heart rate, and respiratory rate. Most procedures take 25 minutes. Animals are not harmed from data collection. Participants even get a free meal! In winter, the extra fat and protein from the sardines can be particularly helpful for these little guys


And when you purchase your Gray Fox package with just three easy payments of $64.95, you also get this really nice watch.

Pretty little fox face!

Mark is pulling out delicious sardine fillets to bait a trap for ringtails (we only caught foxes at this one trap, however). You can somewhat reference the cliff we are on based on the background.

Another day, another fox. This day we caught two! The traps were right near one another, and we had both a male and a female in each trap, so we suspect that these two were a mated pair (they were of a similar age). Gray foxes, like a lot of their canid cousins, are monogamous for life. Here, Mark is pictured with the healthy male. We ear tag all processed animals to eliminate re-processing of individuals. 

Our good friend and lab mate Lena is doing her thesis work on bobcat anthropogenic structure use. We had a lot of fun doing this work-up together and getting a few good pics with this little guy. We don't always photograph animals because each individual responds to the anesthetic differently. In this photo, the fox appears to be awake, but is in fact sedated. We use eye drops to minimize drying, and we never interact with animals in a way that compromises our safety or their well being. 

I traveled to North Carolina for a few days in January to attend a family event, and while I was gone Mark caught a skunk! Here, he shows just how gorgeous (anesthetized) skunks are! He did smell a little funny when I came home, however...

We're really lucky to have volunteer interest in our projects. We're able to have undergraduate students join us in the field for both educational and enjoyable experiences, and everyone is able to learn and share. Clay Rushton is a freshman at West Texas A&M... awesome that he's starting to get in the field early! This little fox was caught in a trap meant for bobcats.

We document all sorts of morphological measurements as well as any new or old injuries. This little gal had an old scratch under her eye, but it didn't make her any less gorgeous!

We monitor temperature, heart rate, and respiratory rate as an assessment of how the animal is responding to the anesthetic. Anesthesia makes temperature regulation a little harder, and in harsh conditions, this can be a problem. It was really cold this day and our little fox needed some assistance in staying warm while under the anesthesia. While this is in no way an emergency, we take it very seriously. The anesthetic we use rarely has serious complications in the species we are studying, but nevertheless Clay got to sit with our fox a bit longer while she was still sedated to help warm her back up (she's in his lap). 

Cue the "awwwwww." How adorable is this guy? This was my very first raccoon !He was enormous, I mean absolutely huge. He was twice the size of my house cats and weighed 20 lbs. To give that some perspective, my foxes weight 8-9 lbs. I have always marveled at the dexterity of their 'hands,' and I am so fascinated at what these animals survive out there in the harsh wild. This old guy had a dental infection, unrelated to being trapped, but was still in good health. Another freshman volunteer was also able to experience his first raccoon as we assisted Mark on the work-up of his study animal. 

Other incidents not photographed include a feral hog messing with one of my traps (those darn hogs are so destructive), seeing my first feral hog (I ate one in Missouri and got close to some but never actually saw one), and chasing a rooster through a field with Mark. We released a few animals because of the weather a couple of days... the Panhandle is so windy! Some days were just too brutal to try and process an animal that we just let them go. Mark has captured one little raccoon three times already, and I've recaptured one of my foxes. So far we have not trapped bobcats or ringtails, but a grad student saw a bobcat the day after I closed my traps! I'm trying to catch one in particular who hangs around a campground in the park, and naturally she shows up when my traps are closed! Such are the joys of wildlife research.

I'm really excited to broaden my sampling area with the assistance of Texas Parks and Wildlife biologists, and I'm testing out a DNA amplification protocol in the lab. I am planning to get back out in the field at the end of the month. Next week I'll be traveling to Houston with some of my fellow students to attend the annual meeting for the Texas chapter of The Wildlife Society. It's going to be so much fun! Lots of students at West Texas A&M will be presenting their research and I can't wait to learn about the research going on in this state. 

I'm also stoked to announce that I'll be spending two weeks in March at a genetics lab at Texas A&M focusing on microsatellite research. The professor I'll be working under has done a lot of amazing research on felids, both nationally and internationally,  as well as helped develop the first conservation genetics lab in Bhutan. More updates soon!