By Aaron Wirsing (with Shannon Kachel)
Earlier this month, I joined Shannon Kachel in Kyrgyzstan for a couple of weeks of field research. Working in collaboration with Panthera and the local managers of the Sarychat-Ertash Reserve in the Tian Chan Mountains, Shannon is exploring interactions between snow leopards, wolves, and their shared prey (Argali and Ibex). During my stay, we did not capture and collar any snow leopards, which are notoriously elusive, but I was left with indelible memories of the region's beautiful alpine scenery, not to mention the bumps and bruises to show for some truly challenging field work at 3000 m (10,000 feet).
By Aaron Wirsing (with Clint Robins)
This summer, the PEL, led by PhD student Clint Robins, teamed up with the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program (DDCSP) at the University of Washington. The DDCSP seeks to increase diversity and inclusion in conservation and the natural sciences. To that end, the program at UW, which is housed in the College of the Environment, recruits undergraduates from unrepresented groups and diverse backgrounds to spend two summers as scholars; during the second summer, the scholars partner with tribal, university, and/or government conservation efforts as interns. Clint mentored two second-year interns, Niki Love and Kyle Mabie, who assisted with investigation of cougar kill sites along the urban-to-wildland gradient than runs from Seattle to the Cascade foothills and then completed their own research projects using data they had collected. We are grateful to Niki and Kyle for choosing to spend time with us this summer, and wish them the best of luck as they move on from the DDCSP to complete their degrees at Cornell and Colorado State, respectively.
Dr. Brian Kertson, of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, talks to the first-year DDCSP cohort about radio-telemetry and his research on cougars in Seattle's back yard.
By Aaron Wirsing
Now in its 5th year, and counting, our Alaska Bear Project continues to build momentum. Working in collaboration with Professor Tom Quinn (SAFS), I've just returned from Bristol Bay, where we've been non-invasively studying bears hunting along six sockeye salmon spawning streams (alliteration!) since 2012. Thus far, we've collected over 2000 hair samples for genetic analysis using barbed wires strung across the streams and detected 121 bears.
This year, for the first time, we've been collecting video using motion-activated trail cameras deployed in conjunction with the wires, and elsewhere, on each stream. We'll be analyzing the videos to explore bear behavioral responses to the wires (e.g., do they learn to avoid them?), and to track the timing and location of different bear behaviors including foraging and traveling. Working with Anne Hilborn, a PhD student in Marcella Kelly's lab at Virginia Tech, we're also using the videos as a means to better communicate our work and findings to the public. Below, two videos provide good examples of the kinds of footage we collect: a mother passing by with two cubs, and one of the many curious bears attracted (presumably) to the sound of the cameras.
By Michael Havrda
Summer is drawing near, and for many research projects that means the start of the field work season is fast approaching. For the last several weeks, we’ve been hard at work getting the Washington Urban-Wildland Carnivore Project ready to transition out of the pilot stage so we can launch our full-scale field study in the next couple of weeks.
One of the tasks that has taken more time than expected was responding to all of the emails we received from members of the public that wanted to participate in our study. On May 11th, we launched a webpage for the Washington Urban-Wildland Carnivore Project on the Woodland Park Zoo’s website. At the same time, Woodland Park Zoo also issued a press release that was covered by news outlets as far away as Spokane. As a result, we received an amazing response from the public – over 200 people wanted to have trail cameras installed on their property! It was very rewarding for us to see how engaged and enthusiastic the community was about wildlife and carnivores in particular.
As you can imagine, a research project as large as the Washington Urban-Wildland Carnivore Project requires a lot of equipment. With close to fifty cameras and all of the associated hardware that comes with them, not to mention tools and supplies for collecting scat samples, we have a lot of items to inventory and double-check before we roll everything out.
At the same time, our Project Lead, Michael Havrda, has been training two new field technicians. Mariah Vane (University of Washington 2013) and Alia Richardson (University of Vermont 2009) have been skillfully learning how to deploy trail cameras. Many of the training sessions have taken place in tricky suburban parks and properties that have challenging logistics such as high human activity, limited space, or dense understory vegetation. Please stay tuned for a more thorough introduction to both Mariah and Alia in an upcoming blog post!
Once training is complete, all of our gear has been delivered and checked, and the last few details of our study design have been decided, we’ll move forward with starting the first round of camera deployments. For each round we’ll be deploying all of our cameras and then leaving them in place until we relocate them to new locations about four weeks later. This process will get repeated for approximately one year, giving us over 400 sample sites across King County, Washington. Hopefully now you’ve gotten a little insight into what we’re doing here at the Washington Urban-Wildland Carnivore Project: please check back for our next blog post to learn why we’re doing this!
The Washington Urban-Wildland Carnivore Project is a collaboration between the University of Washington and Woodland Park Zoo. For more information on the project, please visit our website at www.zoo.org/conservation/urbanwildland or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By: Zach Szablewski
This month, I assisted Apryle Craig with the Predator Ecology Lab's ongoing research on deer-wolf interactions in eastern Washington. Apryle and I were on a mission to retrieve deer collars that had been separated from the deer for some reason or another. The collars are programmed to send the deer's coordinates in an email to the researcher so the researchers can analyze deer movement patterns with respect to habitat, terrain, human development or roads, predators, seasons, competitors such as cattle, and other biological and physical attributes. A portion of the collared deer will be predated on by mountain lions, wolves, or hunters, or hit by cars. For those deer that survive, the collars fall of over time. Each collar has a cotton spacer, which wears away with weather and abrasion and the collar will fall off the deer. When the collar lays still for a pre-programmed number of hours, either because the deer died or the collar fell off over time, it sends a "retrieval email", to the biologist with the coordinates of the collar location. The biologist then hikes to the location and performs a CSI-style site investigation to determine if the collar wore away naturally or if it was a depredation event.
Searching for the collar is like a treasure hunt with the added reward of knowing I am contributing to research that will help land managers better understand deer populations and the predators that depend on them.
by Aaron Wirsing
On the 24th of March, while on sabbatical leave, I travelled to Sydney, Australia to begin a six-week research sojourn sponsored by two of my colleagues at the University of Sydney: Thomas Newsome and Chris Dickman. Over the next few weeks, I'll be updating this post with dispatches from down under.
Overlooking Australia's "Red Center", on the outskirts of the Simpson Desert in western Queensland (taken April 1, 2016).
We reached the Desert Ecology Research Group (DERG) camp, in the Ethabuka Nature Reserve, on the 1st of April, after three grueling days of driving through New South Wales and Queensland. Now in its 26th year(!), Chris Dickman's longitudinal study in the Simpson Desert has become one of the world's signature explorations of the controls on animal behavior and abundance in arid environments. Among many other pursuits, Chris is currently examining whether cover augmentation, in the form of artificial tunnels, might mitigate the impacts of predation by introduced cats and red foxes on native marsupials, including his favorite species the hairy-footed dunnart (Sminthopsis hirtipes).
The Ethabuka campsite, at sunset. Sunsets were a favorite time for me in the Simpson Desert because they set the red sands ablaze.
On the 7th of April, I said goodbye to the Simpson, but not before taking in more of its savannah-like landscapes and another sunset.
From April 14-16, I had the pleasure of spending a few days in Melbourne (Victoria). Much like the the rivalry between Seattle and Portland for top honors in the Pacific Northwest, Sydney and Melbourne are engaged in an eternal contest for the title of Australia's trendiest city. Both have their charms, with Sydney sporting spectacular scenery and Melbourne a vibrant central business district (CBD). I was there to give an invited talk at Melbourne's Deakin University, where Tom has a postdoc appointment. My talk titled, "Ecological impacts of gray wolf recolonization in managed landscapes of the western USA" was well received. Many thanks to Euan Ritchie and the Centre for Integrative Ecology for hosting!
Melbourne's famous central business district (CBD), along the Yarra River.
Yesterday (April 21), I gave a guest seminar at Sydney's Taronga Zoo, as part of the Youth at the Zoo (YATZ) program. The crowd consisted of about 20 high schoolers, aged 13-19, to whom I lectured about wolves and my wolf-prey research in Eastern Washington. At the same time, Tom Newsome drew parallels to Australia's top canid predator, the dingo. The students ate it up and asked lots of great questions. I hope at least one of them left with renewed appreciation for top predators, and especially for dingoes, whose perception down here definitely needs a makeover.
On ANZAC Day (April 25th), we set forth to the Tanami Desert, where Tom Newsome conducted his dissertation research on dingoes nearly a decade ago. We first flew to Alice Springs, the fabled Australian city with the shortest average distance to coastline, and then drove to the remote town of Yuendumu, one of central Australia's largest indigenous townships. There, we were joined by four members of the Central Land Council, which administers much of the area around Alice Springs on behalf of region's Aboriginal communities. Our goal was to explore dingo diets across the Tanami region by sampling scats, or "gunna". Upon reaching the Desert, we were joined by several more helpers from the local Newmont Mine, at which point the gunna sampling team was complete!
The Tanami Desert features the striking contrast of huge, bright red termite mounds, some more than two meters tall, set against meadows of verdantly green spinifex grass. I found the combination to be spellbinding, particularly with the right lighting. Interestingly, termites are the only herbivores that can digest spinifex, which is high in silica.
On our first day of scat sampling (April 27th), we were lucky enough to encounter some dingoes that, presumably because of past reliance on anthropogenic subsidies (garbage), had lost much of their fear of humans. Instead, they allowed us to get close enough for some really great pictures, and one even ran off with a roll of our garbage bags. Here, a resting dingo allowed me to snap a few photos, with no magnification, before running off.
The next day, we sampled Mount Davidson, a remote area of the Desert that is free of human food subsidies and, consequently, where dingoes must make use of wild foods. Our arrival startled three dingoes, which unlike the previous group quickly retreated into the bush. Hence, no pictures, but happy to have spotted truly wild dingoes.
Mount Davidson in the distance. Because of its remote location, the Tanami Desert is home to among the purist dingoes in Australia, with almost no genetic evidence of interbreeding with domestic dogs. Better yet, the dingoes at Mount Davidson exist far from any current human activity and must therefore make a more 'natural' living off of bush tucker.
Our final day of sampling in the Tanami took us to the area surrounding Sangsters Bore, which is of genuine personal and conservation significance. In 1958, Tom's father Alan, a renowned Australian ecologist and expert on dingoes and other denizens of the Red Centre, discovered a remnant population of Mala (rufous hare-wallaby, Lagorchestes hirsutus), which at the time were believed to be extinct. The site of this momentous find was a large sand dune (below, behind me), rare for the region and sporting distinctive vegetation. The reason why Mala held on at this peculiar dune while being wiped out by feral cat and fox predarion elsewhere remains a mystery.
Later, beginning in 1980, other scientists returned to the dune site to initiate a last-ditch Mala rescue operation. Working out of this lonely caravan and surrounded by seemingly endless (albeit enchantingly beautiful) desert, they captured the last few Mala to start a captive breeding effort that continues to this day. Today, no Mala live in the wild on the Australian mainland, though small reintroduced populations do exist on a few offshore islands (e.g., in Shark Bay). All that remains of their memory in the Tanami is contained inside the caravan, in which you can still find a white board tallying the biologists' final efforts to eradicate foxes.
At the conclusion of our Tanami endeavor, we were seen off by another desert sunset.
With my Australian sojourn winding down, I shifted into tourist mode and spent a few days south of Alice Springs visiting iconic Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. On the way, we passed by Mount Connor, a formation so often mistaken for Uluru that it has been dubbed "Fooluru".
Mount Connor is indeed impressive, but it pales in comparison to Uluru. Uluru, or Ayers Rock, is the world's largest "cleanskin" rock and among the oldest rocks in existence. Rising majestically out of surprisingly verdant surroundings, it is utterly mesmerizing. For me, Uluru is among a very small number of places that are truly unique and special. I cannot wait to return, in particular because cloudy weather robbed me of prime sunset and sunrise viewing.
Behold, Uluru! Thank goodness for "panoramic" mode. The hike around its base is 10.6 km, and an absolutely must for all lovers of adventure.
Less appreciated but just as stunning, Kata Tjuta (sometimes called "The Olgas") offers better hiking and one absolutely breathtaking overlook (#2). The cloudy weather may have diminished the area's myriad colors, but neither the rocks' splendor nor my enjoyment.
One the eve of my departure (May 7), I returned to Bondi Beach for one last run along the headlands. Gazing out over the Pacific Ocean at an overlook along the way, I experienced a bittersweet moment, saddened that my unforgettable stay in Australia was coming to a close but also eager to begin the voyage home. Seattle, here I come!
Well folks, that's all. See you back in the office!
by: Apryle Craig
The 2016 Graduate Student Symposium (GSS) is coming up on Friday, March 4 in the Forest Club Room (AND 207). We have four presenters from our lab. The preliminary presentation times are listed below, but please check with coordinators day-of to confirm times:
11:30am, Shannon Kachel
Snow leopards, wolves and the ecology of fear on the roof of the world
1:30pm Apryle Craig
Wolves, deer, & fear: how top predators shape prey behaviors
3:45pm Christine Phelan
Terrain tactics: topography-dependent vigilance in deer
4:45pm Clint Robins
Investigating the role of managed landscapes in cougar foraging ecology along the urban-wildland gradient of western Washington
Open to the public and everyone in the SEFS community, GSS is a friendly gathering to share student work and hone presentation skills. As is tradition, the symposium will be followed by a Dead Elk party—the perfect opportunity to discuss the presentations and posters over food and drinks.
By Shannon Kachel
Photo Credit: R. Kulenbekov/Panthera/Kaiberen/NCMRD/SAEF/NAS/UW/SU
I'm excited and relieved to check in once again from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. This time I'm on my way home to Seattle. I return far from empty-handed, bringing non-invasive genetic samples of wolves, snow leopards and brown bears, as well as thousands of camera trap photos for some unfortunate undergraduates to plow through, and most significantly, for the next 20 months, five daily updates on the movements of F1, a 38 kg female snow leopard, who my partners and I at Panthera fit with a GPS collar, and by so doing kicked off our study of the ecological and behavioral dynamics among snow leopards, wolves and their shared prey. This was a first here in Kyrgyzstan, and came only as the result of months (and in some cases years) of dedication from an entire team of individuals from all over the world. With this hurdle behind us, we can finally get to the gnitty-gritty of the day to day science that will help us to understand and conserve this enigmatic species and the high mountains ecosystems it calls home.
Photo Credit: Panthera/Kaiberen/NCMRD/SAEF/NAS/UW/SU
My collaborators and I will use camera traps and fecal genetics to estimate a range of population parameters for both wolves and snow leopards in a spatially explicit context - we will literally map the density of these animals as a changing variable across the study area, almost like a heat map in a weather forecast. Then, like any other landscape covariate, we can compare numerical patterns with the behavioral observations of our collared animals (again in a spatially explicit context). Behavior in turn will help us create maps of potential or naïve predation risk to ungulates based on the hunting and kill rates we observe. Taken together, these behavioral and numerical insights will help us to predict, test and understand patterns in prey behavior and numbers, as well as those of both carnivores. In an applied context, this information has potential prescriptive value to reduce carnivore-human conflicts and to identify key habitat components and configurations necessary for high mountain predators to survive.
By: Apryle Craig
Project Background: In northeast Washington, mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) and white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) may be trading off food and safety due to increased risk of predation from naturally recolonizing gray wolves (Canis lupus). Increased vigilance and the subsequent decrease in time spent foraging may lead to differences in fitness between groups or changes in impacts to vegetation communities as a result of trophic cascade. To test this hypothesis, my research team outfitted deer with video collars that record their behavior from their point of view.
Job Description: The Deer Behavior Intern will review video clips from the deer collars and record vigilance, foraging, group size, habitat variables, and other key characteristics in an Excel spreadsheet. The intern may have the opportunity to assist with other related projects in the lab as time permits. Reviewing the videos can be tedious and requires high attention to detail. An example of a video can be seen below.
Time Commitment: The intern will work 4-6 hours per week, on-site at our lab in Winkenwerder Hall at the University of Washington for the duration of the UW winter quarter (Approx Jan 4-March 11). Preferred schedule is 2-3 hours on Mondays and 2-3 hours on Wednesdays. Exact start and end date is flexible and weekly schedule is flexible (if you’re only available Tuesdays/Thursdays, don’t let that stop you from applying). Although the position is unpaid, independent study credit is available for UW students.
To apply: Please email your resume to apryle [ at ] uw dot edu, and include Deer Behavior Internship in the subject of the email. No cover letter necessary. In your email, please tell me what you hope to get out of the internship and what your preferred times are for Mondays and Wednesdays (or propose 2 other days and times). Thanks!
By: Apryle Craig
This summer, fires cut our field season short and threatened some of the vegetation plots we installed. While these possible impacts to our research were a concern, they were overshadowed by our concern to for lives, property, and livelihoods of the communities impacted.
Since the fires subsided, I was able to assess the impacts of the fire to the study. Some sites were highly impacted, others remained untouched. Many of the fences remained in place but will need reinforcing. The sites that were impacted by fire can no longer be included in the study in the same way. The plants may grow differently in the burned areas compared to unburned areas. I may use these sites to study the impacts of grazing on a fire-impacted landscape.
The natural world is always changing. It's one of the exciting and challenging facets of studying ecology.