Wildlife Education for Boy Scouts

I had a lovely day today working with members of the West Texas A&M University chapter of The Wildlife Society at a Boy Scouts event focusing on wildlife education. Myself and several other students traveled to a local Boy Scouts campground for a family camping event to talk about several species of wildlife, how to identify them, and why they are important. We had booths on reptiles and amphibians, birds, and mammals, and we were able to share information with the help of recorded bird calls, skins and skulls of several carnivore, ungulate, birds, and amphibians, turtle shells, and two live ambassador snakes. We also talked about track identification skills and how to have respectful wildlife encounters.

The scouts had so much fun! It was encouraging to see what the young boys already knew about wildlife, whether from family experience or direct interaction with wildlife. With almost 100 students visiting our booths throughout the afternoon, it was refreshing and comical to count the times a group of boys yelled "ooooooh!" at one of the booths. Popular items at this event included the two-foot long skull of a Nile crocodile, several of the skins, the bird calls, and the six foot eastern indigo snake. The scouts were respectful, asked interesting questions, and really enjoyed learning about the wildlife in their backyard and in Texas. My favorite bit of the day was showing scouts how to identify animal tracks, particularly the simple ways to distinguish between bobcats, coyotes, gray foxes, and domestic dogs.

Here are a few photo moments from the day:

One of our ambassador snakes was a five year old eastern indigo snake, a threatened species that ranges throughout the eastern United States and prefers woodland habitat with burrows and debris piles. Indigos can get up to 8 feet long (this guy is just over 6 feet) and have extremely powerful jaws. Indigo snakes are nonvenomous and this ambassador was very calm with so many Scouts wanting to learn about him. He is the biggest snake I have worked with!

Indigo snakes are all black, with very large scales, though sometimes they express a bit of red coloring under the chin. This guy took a break with wildlife student Korey. Isn't he gorgeous?

Steve is an officer of our chapter of The Wildlife Society and is very knowledgeable about birds. Here is is discussing skull morphology and how it affects diet in bird species. Look how interested these Scouts are!

Scouts were fascinated with the size of the Nile crocodile skull and the tiny size of its brain case. Traci, a fellow wildlife student, and I also talked to them about several turtle species using specimen shells. You can see the shell of a Texas tortoise in the photo as well as the skin of a prairie rattlesnake.

Jessica is one of our snake experts and graciously brought her indigo and king snake to the event. Here she is teaching scouts and adults about the eastern indigo, snake morphology, and how to properly handle snakes.

Mule deer skull. Just chilling.

I loved talking about the different wildlife species on this table. The Scouts really enjoyed being able to "handle" all the different species and view them up close. Caroline is a graduate student in wildlife biology at West Texas A&M and is studying pronghorns. She loves talking about coat adaptations and helping kids identify wildlife species with skins and skulls. Jere is an Eagle Scout who enjoys scout events and education and provided lots of laughs throughout the day.

Michelle is an undergrad who has worked with me in the field trapping mesocarnivores on several occasions. Here she is talking to Scouts about the California King Snake she is holding. 

These are just a few photo examples of a really fun day. The comical moment of the day, however, came during my discussion with an 8 year old on bears. He wanted to know what to do if he ever saw one. We talked about backing away and not running, being alert in bear country, and what to do when face to face with an animal. I went over the safety basics and how human responses should be different based on whether the animal is alone, with cubs, or guarding a meal, but it became increasingly difficult to not burst out laughing when we got to the differences between the American black bear and the grizzly bear. For starters, this kid looked like the perfect combination of Macaulay Culkin in "Home Alone" and Ralphie from "A Christmas Story." I say this because it is important to visualize this young man's response when I explained that the grizzly bear's taxonomic name is

Ursos arctos horribilis

and is so named for his horrible attitude. I explained that while black bears usually run away when you yell at and get "big" with them due to fear, a grizzly bear will usually become angry at such a confrontation and humans are often attacked, sometimes killed, from the physical mauling of such an impressive animal. I described these differences with hand gestures and what I assumed were non-scary smiles, but by the time I was finished, the young Scout was standing rigidly in front of me with ever-growing eyes the size of saucers, his mouth  hanging open, with literally no words or response. When I asked him if that answered his question, his eyes got even larger, his draw dropped lower, and the silence went on... and then he suddenly took off as fast as he could in the opposite direction. 

I obviously should be a teller of scary stories around campfires. Or a backcountry safety trainer in griz country. 

Aside from the child I may or may not have instilled a healthy fear of bears in, it was a really wonderful day and I am so happy we were able to spend time with young ambassadors and supporters of wildlife. We plan to develop more educational content in the future for the Boy Scouts in our area, as the future of wildlife management and conservation depends on the education of young enthusiasts.

Newspaper Feature!

Hello all! It's been a super busy week. I've been working long hours in the genetics lab preparing for my talk on landscape-mediated genetic structure of bobcats in the Texas Panhandle. It's midnight and I just got home from the lab. I had a brief break waiting for my samples to run, so when it came time to go back to campus I snuck up there in my pajamas and enormous, fluffy pink slippers (my mother gave them to me as a joke for Christmas but DEAR GOD they are so comfortable. I'm not ashamed). I was feeling pretty good about the 200 some reactions I'd run today that I slid down the hall Risky Business style... luckily no one saw me.

Today has been a good day even though 18 of those 200 reactions didn't analyze correctly (Celine Dion's song "My Heart Will Go On" came on the radio as I read the 18 failed reactions and I had a good laugh as a result. Sometimes science doesn't work). I received the link to tomorrow's newspaper feature on my thesis research. A local hunting organization volunteered to interview me on my research at West Texas A&M to solicit participation from local hunters. I rely a lot on hunter willingness to donate tissue samples from harvested animals, and together we can learn new things about wildlife populations and hopefully  contribute a piece of the puzzle for effective management and conservation.

To read the fantastic article, click here: Important Work

A big thanks to Fat Boy Outdoors for being willing to interview me on my research!

Anesthetized gray fox in Palo Duro Canyon State Park. Citizen contribution enables me to understand how the landscape structures gene flow in gray foxes, coyotes, and bobcats. 

Busy Busy Busy... and a Bobcat Kitten

Unfortunately, my journey in graduate school has involved a steady decline in the content of this site. I intend to pick up the pace a bit, as I've had a lot of fun the last few months and not shared it. As January is already 2/3 of the way through, my research is over halfway complete and I anticipate completing my master's at the end of 2014!

The last few weeks I have been working long hours in the genetics laboratory to prepare for a talk on bobcat genetic structure. I'm very excited to complete the analysis on this portion of my thesis! To recap, I am examining the genetic structure of carnivores in the Texas Panhandle to determine if the landscape mediates gene flow. I am examining bobcats, coyotes, and gray foxes, but as I have a lot of data, I am only discussing bobcats for this talk. I will hold off on offering my expectations for this data, as I am still in the lab. In the next two weeks, however, I expect t know a little more about ho the landscape structures these populations.

What's the justification or observations for this research? I am studying wide-spread, generalist species- this means that, although these carnivore species exist in lower densities than, say, and ungulate or songbird species, their ability to adapt across habitats combined with their high movements generally means that the population will exhibit a panmictic genetic structure. This simply means that everyone travels far distances and as a result a lot of animals are related despite these distances. However, certain anthropogenic and landscape factors can drive gene flow (movements), and with data to support this, I'm investigating if the geographic features unique to the Texas Panhandle, which is the southern extent of the Great Plains, mediate the movements of these carnivore species. So there ya go! Science!

Life as a graduate student isn't always glamorous, but it is rewarding. Case in point this summer when I and a fellow grad student got a call about a BOBCAT KITTEN. A concerned landowner called the sheriff's station when his dog found a little bobcat kitten wandering around in a field, so I loaded up my supplies at 11:30 at night to go tend to this little guy. We arrived downtown to a very unhappy five-week old bobcat kitten. It's a good thing we were called, because animal control was going to take the cat and most likely the animal would have ended up in captivity (if it survived). Lena is another grad student at West Texas A&M studying bobcat habitat selection and movement of a specific bobcat population, so she was, as always, a dream to share this opportunity with. When we realized that this kitten was in good health, we knew that the landowner had merely discovered an impatient kitten waiting for mom to come home. Oftentimes, what we believe to be abandoned or lost wildlife are simply cases where a parent has "parked" it's young, and our good intentions are actually disrupting a perfectly normal and safe natural process for wildlife. A lot of animals that end up in rehab facilities are cases of unnecessary rescue. For this bobcat kitten, we knew we could get him back home to his mother based on the description the landowner provided; we believed he had merely wandered from his den.

Before we returned him to the site of discovery, we collected some data for my thesis. Because of his small size, anesthetization was not possible, so we wore Kevlar gloves to protect our arms and hands and relied upon animal handling training to safely restrain the little guy. At five weeks, he was tiny but feisty! Here are a few pics of the little fella:

These gloves protected us from those claws! You can see how unhappy he is to interact with humans. We didn't handle him long.

Latex gloves protect both human and animal from disease. In this photo I was determining the sex of the kitten while Lena restrained him at the scruff, as a parent would to it's young. We are trained to handle wildlife, and we both have our rabies vaccination. 

Very fortunate to have interacted with a bobcat kitten, and even better that we were able to safely return him to his den.

The evening ended with Lena and I driving the kitten back to the property where he was found. The landowner hiked out with us and directed us to the location he was found. After some investigating, Lena and I found what we thought to be his den and safely released him. The kitten seemed to know where he was and scuttled out of sight. Assuming all was well, the bobcat kitten was likely reunited with his mother when she returned to care for him later in the evening.

I am very lucky to have had this experience... I mean seriously, how cute was this little guy?! He should now be almost seven months old, dispersed and in search of or settling into his own territory. In the next two years he should successfully breed and produce kittens of his own... kittens who hopefully aren't keen on exploring an open field at just over a month old (he could have been eaten by a fox, coyotes, or even an owl!). It is always a good idea to research the wildlife in your area so you are able to properly help an animal without hurting the animal or yourself. Familiarizing yourself with the individuals and agencies in your area that are equipped to help wildlife will also ensure that your wildlife stay healthy and free.

For questions on mesocarnivores like bobcats, coyotes, and gray foxes, you can contact me here!

Dr. Roberta Newbury

One of my closest friends, Dr. Roberta Newbury, was recently interviewed by Southwest Jaguars on her doctoral research on bobcat ecology in northwest Montana. Dr. Newbury's field research was my first introduction to wildlife biology, and she offered me a job back in 2010 when I was not qualified. She is an amazing biologist, quality scientist, and one of the most awesome people you could ever meet! Her appreciation of and wonder for science and nature are both exquisite and relentless, and she and her bobcats have taught me a lot about conservation biology and life. I invite you to have a peek into the philosophy of a great biologist:

Dr. Roberta Newbury: The Red Lynx Biologist

Genetics, Aggie Style

Since my last post, I've not spent too much time in the field. Rather, I transitioned from the field into the lab as well as focused on my coursework. I took some pretty awesome classes this past semester: conservation biology and wildlife nutritional ecology. I definitely feel like I've got this grad student thing down, what with the sixteen page exams I've been writing. It's great! And, I'm pretty stoked at the 4.0 I've maintained the first year of grad school.

Whoa! I finished my first year of grad school! Awesomesauce!

I love school so much, I opted to spend my spring break doing even more work. Not that any grad student actually gets to take university breaks, but I was excited nonetheless. Last semester, I contacted Dr. Jan Janecka at Texas A&M University. Dr. Janecka is a research professor in the molecular cytogenetics and genomics laboratory within the veterinary research department. He's done a lot of work in population and conservation genetics, but has a particular interest in wild felids. Dr. Janecka was gracious enough to let me spend two weeks in his laboratory working on bobcat genetics in order to help me learn more about the techniques necessary for my thesis. It was a very rewarding experience. I spent most of my time with a visiting Mongolian PhD student, Narka, who is doing similar genetics research on Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) in Mongolia. Together we prepared numerous samples for sequencing, attempted to teach language to one another (my Mongolian is really wretched, but his English so much better), and navigated the famous Aggieland. We also showed our field research photos to one another. Dr. Janecka has done extensive research on snow leopards (Panthera uncia) in Mongolia, and Narka has assisted radio-collaring snow leopards, Pallas cats (Otocolobus manul), and lynx. As a result, I am plotting on how I might end up in Mongolia.

I really enjoyed this externship because of the quick learning curve and high expectations. Dr. Janecka will also sit on my thesis committee to further advise me on the genetic component of my research, as he has an affinity for and a lot of experience with bobcat (Lynx rufus)  research. I was able to assist him on a current research effort as well as learn about tiger, snow leopard, and Mongolian horse genetics. I focused on techniques relevant to my research questions, using exceptional equipment and learning the what and why and how of microsatellite research. I am very fortunate to have been invited to learn in one of the best labs in the country.

Once I created the serum samples of several bobcats' DNA, I created working dilutions of those samples to be used in sequencing.

 Pipetting primers into each sample for the polymerase chain reaction.

Stand back! I'm about to try science!

I didn't catch a photo with my new friend Narka, whom is back in Mongolia and is by now beginning his field research. Like me, he was new to genetics and Dr. Janecka has been most helpful in getting us started. I knew I wanted to work in laboratory research after my internship with the Smithsonian, but I didn't realize I would think genetics equally cool to endocrinology. I gotta say, I'm pretty fascinated with what genetics can teach us. 

At the end of my visit, I attended the Ecological Integration Symposium, a conference focusing on the application of ecology in a changing world. Like any good conference, the beer social was hosted at a professor's home and students and professors alike mingled and discussed hobbies and research. I learned a lot about solifugids (camel spiders), other invertebrates, reptiles in South America, and more. A&M also has some very bright students working in marine biology. The plenary talks and session talks covered several taxa, ecoregions, and interesting questions. This was my third research conference, and I'm looking forward to many more. This time next year, I hope to be presenting!

After my two weeks in Aggieland I see what the hype is all about. Its a pretty cool little town. Great research, great people, and great beer (my advisor, Dr. Matlack, knows I like beer with conservation). 

This summer I will be working with one of my advisors, Dr. Rocky Ward, preparing my samples and testing my newly purchased primers. I will also be live-trapping for bobcats and gray foxes. I recently caught my first bobcat, so look out for that post!

Dr. Janecka contributed to a really beautiful book on snow leopard research called Snow Leopard: Stories from the Roof of the World.  Click the link to check it out!

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!

Field Day Prep

ZOMG! Tomorrow is my first field day as a graduate student! I'm so excited. Mark and I will be setting some wildlife traps in hopes of catching a variety of species. It's currently 19F outside and dropping, and with 2" of snow yesterday, it promises to be rather chilly! Now if only I can find my thickest baselayer pants.... no seriously, I've torn the house apart and I can't find them...