Tracking my way: life after graduation

Swabbing a dead snowshoe hare for genetic information on its predator. It was cached possibly by a coyote

My name is Shane White, a Corkonian and 2009 UCC Zoology graduate.

I’ve always had a passionate interest in wildlife, the reason why I studied Zoology at UCC as an undergraduate.  Since graduation I have been incredibly lucky to have had many opportunities to study and work in some of the remotest, wildest and magnificent ecosystems on our planet with species such as wolves, cougars, lynx and bears over the past two years.

As a student whose ecological interests primarily focused on terrestrial mammals, specifically carnivores, I always knew that I would have to leave Ireland to pursue experience which would be beneficial for postgraduate work and future employment.  I am interested in topics such as predator prey relationships, population ecology, trophic cascades and conservation genetics so I looked for field opportunities that related to these areas. Aspects of research that spark my interest are how predators interact in a multi predator system, and how important terrestrial predators are to the overall health of an ecosystem.

My first break in working with carnivores came not in a far and distant land, but along the banks of my own lovely Lee. For my fourth year dissertation I was tasked with investigating otter (Lutra lutra) distribution, diet and determining a baseline minimum population size within Cork City and surrounding habitats.  It was a great start to getting hands on experience with carnivore research and after graduation I was well accustomed to locating and identifying tracks belonging to our native terrestrial mammals. After completing my otter research I was accepted on a wolf-moose predator prey project in North-eastern Poland along the Belarusian border, which required that I had experience tracking.

Large wolf track near rendevous site in Poland

Since I’m so interested in wolves, getting the opportunity to work in Bialowieza and Biebrza National parks in Poland was a dream come true. Bialowieza is an old growth primeval forest with a rich diversity of life.  Mammal species that can be found there include wolves, Eurasian lynx, moose, red deer, roe deer, badgers, and foxes, otters, weasels, martens and polecats. The park is also famous for being the last stronghold of the European bison, a species whose future may be uncertain given that today’s herd of about 3000 comes from only 13 individuals, therefore the population has very low genetic variation.

In Bialowieza I was trained in the aspects of research I was to undergo along with one other crew member, another former UCC zoology graduate. Together we made up the two person team that was to investigate wolf moose relationships in Biebrza national park, three hours north of Bialowieza and located in a remote marshland surrounded by mixed coniferous deciduous national forest.  The aims of the project were to investigate habitat utilisation and preference in ungulates, population size and spatial structure of wolves and lynx and the feeding habits and predation impacts by wolves.

I found this radio-collared Roe deer (being used for data on another project....not anymore!) predated upon by a pack of four wolves

Daily tasks involved performing ungulate pellet transects, wolf and lynx tracking and scat collection, forensic analysis at mortality sites and wolf howling stimulus as well as keeping records of dead ungulates, visual observations, wolf tracks and all wolf sign such as den and rendezvous sites.

Learning to howl with Professor WÅ‚odzimierz JÄ™drzejewski, one of Europe’s leading wolf authorities, was an experience all in its own, and true to Irish form, our very first night in the field we managed to elicit a response from an entire pack including pups. But erasing that Irish luck, we had left our recording equipment back at our bunkhouse as we had just planned on practising…..

After three months in Poland I was on the move again, this time pursuing more wolf ecology research and after having gained quite a lot of experience with wolf work in Poland I was accepted as a volunteer with the University of Sassari, to be included in a team of biologists that worked full time out of a remote research station named Casa Stabbi, located within the Apennine mountain range in Tuscany studying wolf and ungulate ecology. (Yes, I said Tuscany and wolves in the same sentence…:)

Wolf tracks in the Italian Apennines

I stayed in the Apennine mountains for nearly three months, snow tracking different wolf packs and gathering their scat for dietary and genetic analysis. Dietary work was carried out by us at the research station and genetic samples were sent to a lab in Sassari. Tracks were followed and scats were analysed in order to build up an idea of pack size, distribution, and diet in the region.  Genetic samples were used to examine the level of hybridisation between wolves and dogs in the region and to differentiate wolf packs and territories.

Before I left for Italy I stumbled across a website, advertising for a field technician position in Colorado. I applied for the position on a whim not expecting to hear back. Unexpectedly one night at 4am mid way through the field season I received a phone call. It was Cristina Eisenberg, the biologist directing the research in Colorado. She offered me the job and as soon as touched bases in Ireland, I walked into USIT in Cork City, booked my 12 month USA work and travel visa with what little money I had left in my bank a/c and continued to contribute more CO2 to the atmosphere by flying all the way to Grand Junction, a town in north-western Colorado.

After the interview and by sheer coincidence while waiting for my transfer flight from Stansted airport to Cork, I picked up the latest National Geographic and on the front cover was the title “Wolf Wars.”  The research project I was to be involved with was discussed in the article. To say the very least I was excited.

The research I took part in Colorado was not only interesting, it was incredibly relevant and gave me a taste for what wildlife work in the United States can offer. I found that finding experience in whatever aspect of biology interests you are much more accessible in the United States. For instance there are numerous websites which on a daily basis advertise wildlife job postings. These are usually assisting graduate students’ research, working for the state or working for the federal government.  Such sites include http://wfsc.tamu.edu/jobboard/ and http://www.conbio.org/jobs/. These sites advertise jobs for all aspects of biology ranging from freshwater, marine and avian research to all sorts of cool invertebrate, amphibian and reptile work.

My humble abode in Colorado, 10'000 ft elevation

In Colorado I was situated on a large working ranch (300 square miles) which worked to sustain the natural environment. The ranch was situated on an arid, high elevation area on the Colorado Plateau west of the Rocky Mountains. Aspen communities dominated the landscape and one aspect of my time on the ranch was examining how Sudden Aspen Decline syndrome may be influenced by a keystone predator. We were also to measure how a suite of multiple predators (cougars, bears) were affecting elk density and behaviour. This was a trophic cascade study, something which really appealed to me as I thought the research very relevant and with implications for various ecosystems.

Methodology involved performing pellet transects, extensive vegetation sampling, tree coring, wildlife tracking, carnivore scat collection and remote camera monitoring as well as focal observations on elk and mule deer.  Possible wolf recolonisation into Colorado State was investigated.

In total I spent just over four months working in Colorado and during that timeframe I was able to use the above mentioned websites to find and apply for various carnivore jobs in the US. As an example of the incredible wildlife volunteer positions and jobs available in the United State, I was offered places on various projects, cougars in New Mexico, wolves in Yellowstone, bears in Maine and on an endangered black footed ferret position in North Dakota. However due to the lack of funding in many of this positions (some jobs offer only food stipends and living expenses but not a wage) and the distances I would have to travel as well as some timeframe clashes for the projects, I eventually decided to accept an offer with work on a snowshoe hare and lynx mortality project in the North Cascades of Washington State (Not Washington D.C!!!) the most North-western state in the lower 48, referred to as the Evergreen state.

An uncollared lynx without eartags means a new lynx in our study site. This was a remote baiting station and camera baited with fresh road killed deer

The snowshoe hare gig sought to investigate snowshoe hare abundance, distribution, and survival patterns in a managed forest landscape in the North Cascades. Essentially this project is a part of a wider conservation scheme concerning the federally listed Canada lynx whose numbers are estimated as low as 50 in the entire state. Snowshoe hares can make up to 98% of lynx diet therefore by building up an idea of where snowshoe hares occur, it is hoped better management of their habitats can be implemented, catering very nicely for lynx!

Primary duties included, carrying and setting live-traps for snowshoe hares, handling, measuring, & affixing hares with VHF/GPS collars, radiotelemetry and GPS monitoring of hare mortality as well as forensic analysis of hares and hare mortality sites.

Forensic analysis of dead hares was my primary duty and was achieved by heading out into the field every morning by 4WD in the months of September and October and by snowmobile until December, and getting radio-telemetry signals from each of the projects 59 collared hares. Mortalities emitted a rapid beep and after linking the dead hare to the study site it was collared in, I would usually drive/snowmobile to the site and locate the dead hare with telemetry apparatus and carry out genetic swabbing of the carcass in the hopes of determining what the predator was.

A grumpy lynx after immobilisation in one of our traps

Sometimes kill site analysis would provide the clue as to who killed the hare, such as what the remains looked like, tracks in soil or snow, scrapings on nearby trees, was the animal cached, broken bones, tuffs of hair in a pile or scattered and bite mark measurements. Typically a lynx killed hare would have its rear feet, stomach contents, back flap of fur and tuffs of hair in a pile all located within one meter of the actually kill site. Other likely culprits included coyotes, bobcats, great horned owls and goshawks.

From my time spent with the snowshoe hare project I met various other biologists involved with other aspects of this project. One such aspect was a long term project that involved trapping Canada lynx. This project aimed to trap new individuals, preferably females and affixing them with GPS radio-collars in the hopes of gathering more data on their distribution and habitat use, again with the aim of improving management of these areas. By and far, this project was the most rewarding as being one of the main capture team personnel, I was able to trap numerous lynx and be present for several immobilisations and radio-collaring of new individuals.

To sum up the past two years, it has been an incredible experience for me and I am fortunate to have been given the chance to work on interesting projects, in some amazing places with some great people. By choosing to get out there, and seek new experiences I have been a part of leading scientific research projects and I have certainly learned a lot and picked up a whole new repertoire of skills. My advice to you, if you want to pursue a career in wildlife research, is to gain field experience in research areas that interest you.  You may have to start as a volunteer, but later down the line you will be competitive for jobs or postgraduate positions. These are competitive times, especially regarding wildlife research. Next September I will be starting my MSc in Edinburgh or else in British Columbia on a caribou-wolf study, application pending.  Until then, I wish you all the best and feel free to contact me for advice or any further questions?

My email is shanew101@gmail.com

I wish you all the best and happy trails.

Shane

 

The BEES Research Blog would like to thank Shane for his post and for permission to publish his photographs which accompany this post. EL

 

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