There are far better things ahead than any we leave behind. – C. S. Lewis
Many undergraduate students choose to follow a path toward graduate school. Us? Well, we aren’t any different.
Demi is planning on attending Medical School and studying disease transmission and immunology. This project is (essentially) her baby; she’s been nurturing the idea and helping it bloom, with the help of some really fantastic people.
Andrew wants to get a PhD in genetics and is an integral part of this project. He’s here to broaden his knowledge and skills in biology and is excited about the genetic analysis we will be doing this year on the hairs that we collect.
And Dr. Grant? She’s been there, done that. She’s currently an awesome, involved member of the biology faculty at Southern Utah University.
But every journey begins with a single small step. And even if you have to tiptoe, take that step.
For us, this research is our first step, a new adventure that will allow us to learn about ourselves, our environment, and what we’re capable of accomplishing. It’s not easy. It’s actually a lot of work. Some days it gets monotonous. But it’s worth it in the end.
About the Research
Biodiversity (the variety of life in the world or in a particular geographic location) is important to human interest. Mammalian biodiversity lets us learn about ecosystems in different places and adds to our knowledge of how life around us functions. Many biologists in the past were called ‘collectors’ who killed and preserved specimens for science. We do not need many of the specimens today because we have usable specimens already and can avoid killing animals to gain accurate knowledge of populations. Popular methods back in the day included shooting animals and and catching animals in snap-traps.
Our goal is to focus on being eco-friendly by limiting the amount of unnecessary death in our research.
In order to do this, we plan on using 4 different forms of non-invasive data collection techniques: mounted camera traps, hair snare traps, track stations, and a bear corral. Being non-invasive means we’ll be able to gather data and information without injuring or killing the animal.
Since there’s no way for us to directly compare results between invasive and non-invasive methods unless we deploy at least one invasive trap, we need to do just that. Our one and only invasive technique will be our pitfall traps. This comparison will let us know if the non-invasive technique works just as well or better in documenting the shrew population (more on shrews later). If the non-invasive techniques yield accurate population data, we can then encourage support for more conservation biologists to use non-invasive sampling techniques.
Mounted Camera Traps
Mounted camera traps will be the fastest and least complicated to set up. The cameras we’ll be using will be Browning Trail Cameras capable of recording high-definition images and video during the day and night. Additionally, these cameras come equipped with time-lapse capabilities and can also capture multi-shots within a specified frequency.
Each camera will be locked in a sturdy CAMLOCKbox and further secured by a Python Master Lock cord. This will prevent any person or animal from taking the camera from its location around the tree as well as provide extra resistance against weather ailments.
A total of 12 trail cams will be deployed at various stations around the property of Summit Mountain Lodge. 2 trail cams will focus on the bear corral while the remaining 10 will be used to accompany the wild cat hair snare and track stations.
Hair Snare Traps:
Hair snare traps will be used to assist in documenting the populations of big cats and shrews, but the traps will be vastly different between the two mammals due to animal size, diet, and species-specific attractors.
For shrews, we see a pan-pipe style hair snare trap. This trap style consists of 3 PVC pipes of varying sizes (2 in. x 30 cm, 1.25 in. x 30 cm, and 0.75 in. x 15 cm) glued together.
Tape (duct tape, packing tape, or lint rolling tape) will be placed on the top-half of each pipe entrance on both ends of the pipe. This will cause the shrews to have to rub against the tape in order to enter the pipe tunnel, extracting some hair samples from them as a result. We will bait the tubes with ground beef.
A total of 50 shrew hair snare traps will be deployed around Summit Mountain Lodge.
In order to obtain hair samples from the big cats in the area, we will have to construct an aggressive hair snare trap. This trap, though seemingly aggressive to us, will not hurt the cats at all. On the contrary, we expect the cats to rub their cranial regions against this trap, much like your average domesticated cat would behave towards a scratching post or other rough or textured surface.
The hair snare traps for the cats will be constructed from weather-sealed 10 cm square pieces of wood. The wood will then be fitted to have three different layers of hair pulling materials: velcro, nails, and barbed wire.
Velcro will be used as the base for catching hair and will be the bottom-most layer.
From there, we’ll take 1.25 in. roofing nails and hammer them through the board and velcro base. We’ll design a 3×3 geometric pattern for the nails to give us a total of 9 nails per board. This will be the second hair-catching layer.
Finally, we’ll string 12.5 gauge 4-point barbed wire in loops across the board’s length. The barbed wire will serve as the third hair-catching layer.
In order to attract cats to our stations, we will need to use a combination of visual aids, lures, and other cat attractors. Cats by nature are extremely curious carnivores and will likely approach a station out of curiosity rather than for a meal.
Each hair snare trap will be nailed to a tree about 0.5 meters off the ground to attract a broader range of big cats. Above the hair snare trap (1 m off the ground) will be the visual attractant, a free-rotating aluminum pie plate meant to reflect and glint every time it catches the wind.
On the hair snare trap itself will be the liquid lure. A mixture of different scents, the liquid lure will be able to attract big cats from about half a mile away. To enhance the scent bait, we will sprinkle dry catnip over the liquid lure on the trap.
A total of 100 big cat hair snare stations will be set up around Summit Mountain Lodge. 10 of these stations will also be equipped with track stations and mounted camera traps.
Both big cat and shrew hair snare traps will yield hair samples that will undergo morphological identification and analysis underneath the microscope. Additionally, genetic analysis will be performed to determine sex and provide individual information.
In terms of hair snare information retrieval, both methods (morphological vs. genetic) will be compared to see if morphological assessment by itself is an accurate enough predictor for population data.
The shrew track stations will be combined with the shrew hair snare traps. Within the PVC pipes we will lay down a strip of contact paper. Black soot spray will be applied to the edge of the contact paper next to the entrance of the pipe. Any incoming shrew will have to step on the soot and leave small tracks on the sticky contact paper as they make their way toward the bait.
Track stations will be mounted on thin strips of plastic inside each pipe to allow for easy access and easy replacement.
Cat track stations will be separate from the cat hair snare traps but when set up will form part of the 10 three-piece cat stations.
Track stations will consist of 1 m x 1 m x 1 in. wooden frames filled with sand. The base layer of sand will be coarse (0.5-1 mm diameter) grain; the top layer of sand will be fine (0.1 mm diameter) grain. Roughly 1-2 L of water will be added to the sand every 2-3 days to create a soft and easy print. A few drops of liquid lure will be poured in the middle of the track station to encourage feline activity.
(track station cat picture)
Track stations will be placed near paved roads or trails as most cat activity can be found in a radius around trails. Caution must be paid as many cats will shy away from urban development or human infrastructure, both of which may be found near trails.
Tracks will be captured through photographic evidence and using plaster of paris to create a cast that will then be used for morphological analysis.
Bear corrals will consist of the 4-point barbed wire wrapped in a circle around a group of trees. Trees within the corral will be sprayed with fish oil and fish scent to attract bears. The corral will be placed high enough that the bear won’t be able to step over it, but low enough that the bear will need to shimmy beneath it to get within the circle. This will pull some hairs from the bear as it attempts to get to the fish lure.
Results will be analyzed underneath a microscope via hair morphology. Additionally genetic analysis will yield more information about gender and population and will assist in identifying bears at the individual level.
Pitfall traps are an important sampling technique for small mammals and reptiles. The pitfall trap works best with animals that do not have keen eyesight or that travel at night. It consists of a dug out pit filled with a container of some sort. Often pitfall traps have fences that help guide animals toward the trap opening. Pitfall traps work as animals simply fall into the traps and are held for collection. There is a variety of styles of pitfall traps and seemingly no two are alike.
One concern that we hope to avoid with pitfall traps is escape of the captured animal. We overcome this by making our pits deep enough that any shrew falling in will not escape. The dimensions of our traps are 30 cm (~12 in) long with a 4 in. diameter of PVC pipe. We will use test caps to close both ends when not in use and close off the bottom when in use. We will place a soft bed of cotton at the bottom of the tube along with food to aid in the survival of any shrew that falls into our trap.
Shrews are delicate animals and can quickly starve to death if they are not fed. This important fact makes it necessary to check the traps regularly and close them when not in use.
One benefit of pitfall traps is that we can collect hairs directly from the animals for comparison with hairs found in our hair snares for better identification of shrews. Additionally, we can measure, weigh, and quickly identify shrews caught in this style of trap at the individual level.
One of the major drawbacks (especially for the shrews) is the likelihood of death in this style of trap and any environmental impact this may have on the surrounding bio-system.
We do expect some of the shrews to perish in the trap, either from the fall, lack of food, or lack of warmth during the nights. We hope to not waste the shrews we do kill by studying them and gleaning all the information we can from them. We will also be preparing some of them for use as museum specimens to educate the public about the surrounding wildlife.
We will be targeting two main species of big cats in the mountains of Brian Head, UT. These two are the most likely species we expect to find. In addition to these two, we may also stumble across one more, rarer species of big cat.
The first of these common species is the cougar, Puma concolor. Also known as a mountain lion, puma, or catamount, this big cat weighs an average of 140 lbs. as an adult. Cougars may run 40-50 mph at full speed and are excellent lone hunters with superior stealth, speed, strength, and eyesight. These graceful predators leave 4″ wide paw prints and can stand 2-3 feet tall on all four legs.
The second big cat we hope to see is the bobcat, Lynx rufus. This big cat is only about twice the size of the average domestic cat and can weigh between 14-40 lbs. as an adult. Bobcats can sprint short distances at speeds of about 25-30 mph. These predators have small paw prints, about 1 3/8″ wide. Standing on all four legs, this cat can reach 1-2 feet.
The third big cat is the one we’re not sure we will find. This species of big cat is the canada lynx, Lynx canadenis. This medium-sized big cat can be classified by its dense silvery brown coat, ruffed face, and tufted ears. It can sometimes be confused with the bobcat, although it is slightly larger. As an adult it can weigh 11-37 lbs. These predators can track prey with superior eyesight and see a mouse 250 feet away. Their top speed can reach 50 mph although they rely much more on stealth than they do on speed. Their prints are fairly large, about 3″ wide. Standing on four legs, these cats can reach 19-22 in. tall, or about 1.5-2 feet.
Shrews look like small mice with long, twitching noses. They are commonly mistaken as mice even though they are not rodents. Shrews belong to the order Soricomorpha which literally translated means the true shrews (this order may change shortly due to some genetic evidence that this classification is polyphyletic).
If you ever watch a video of a shrew you will see that they move very quickly, often in a tittering, jerking fashion. Shrews have small eyes and poor eyesight. They eat nuts and bugs and anything they can kill, which frankly are a lot of things. Shrews can kill snakes, scorpions, mice, and whoever else they stumble across in their search for food.
In our location it is possible, though not incredibly likely that we will see up to four types of shrews. The most likely types of shrews we may see are: water shrews (Sorex palustris), dwarf shrews (Sorex nanus), and montane shrews (Sorex monticolus). One shrew that will be rarer to see in our area is merriam’s shrew (Sorex merriami).
We will be conducting our field research and trials at Summit Mountain Lodge in Brian Head, UT. This location is a mixed aspen and conifer forest with temperatures reaching about 70 degrees Fahrenheit in the daytime and 37 degrees Fahrenheit during the night during the summer months. Average rainfall is about 2.2 mm during these months. Elevation is 9,800 feet above sea level.