This one’s for the women: thank you

Wildlife biology. As someone immersed in the field now, those words mean many things: research, conservation, exploration. When I declared them as my major at North Carolina State in 2010, I was naive to the path women before me paved in my field. But it didn’t take long to realize most of the core wildlife faculty, most of my classmates were male. Still, I never felt out of place, less than, or in the wrong being a woman in wildlife. Let me tell you why.

At freshman orientation, it was a woman (Rebecca) who grabbed my arm and forged a lifelong friendship fueled on dining hall food, late night study sessions, and a mutual love of the outdoors. As a junior working in a lab at the nature museum, it was a woman (Morgan) graduate student and woman (Ariel) research assistant who showed me the ropes. That summer, the women (Alex, Danie, Lauren, Lindsey, Julie, Erica, Elysha, Elizabeth) of wildlife camp formed a sisterly bond over morning bird quizzes and evening beers by the river.

When senior year rolled around, a woman (Dr. Gardner) professor taught the class notorious for being the most difficult in the wildlife curriculum. A woman (Lisa) interviewed me for my final internship as an undergraduate student that year, too and became a lasting mentor; she still challenges, “Are you doing what you want? Pursue only what you want.”

In my post-graduation internship, a woman (Stephanie) proved that glamour has a place in wildlife and a team of women (Troi, Mary, Natalia, Christina) interns lent helping hands on the others’ projects. Toward the end of that summer, I interviewed with a woman (Marcella) professor who hired me for my first real technician job. When I got to work, a woman (Jenna) trained me. The woman (Dana) graduate student on the project heard when I asked for more and gave me the opportunity to present and publish research on the data I helped collect. When that work was done, it was a woman (Cordie) graduate student who offered a job on her squirrel project. During her brief absence to attend a conference it was a woman (Emily) technician who came to assist me in the field.

When I moved to Missouri, I first worked for a woman (Rami) in a wildlife physiology lab, then with a woman (CJ) on a deer capture crew. The woman (Chloe) graduate student on the deer project balanced her responsibilities with the capture crew and coursework flawlessly. Later, I was hired by a woman (Roxie) to head up an invasive plant removal crew, where I worked with women (Michaela, Hannah) crew members.

When my graduate position on spotted skunks was still only maybe going to happen, it was a fellow woman (Colleen) mesocarnivore adorer who offered excitement. I ultimately accepted that graduate position and when I requested help from my lab prepping field equipment, it was two women (Lauren, Abby) who volunteered. The only woman (Lori) on my committee was the most enthusiastic of four members to join my thesis efforts.

Of course my journey in this “male-dominated” field included men too. An undergraduate advisor, for example, who believed my language-learning, study-abroading, non-wildlife-related pursuits were valuable. A boyfriend, who in response to whatever new dream job I discover, asks how, not whether we will achieve that dream. A professor and supervisor who will always write that letter or pick up the phone and call his contacts to vouch for me when I apply for a new job. A family that just wants to hear my stories, to know why I love the work I do.

womensmarch-expect-usIt’s a gift to be surrounded by men who can’t fathom the type of person who would sexually discriminate or harass a woman in our workplace. But they know as well as we do, ladies, that our work isn’t done. Women don’t represent half of the wildlife field yet; the stats are even worse for women representing other minorities as well. Multiple women mentioned in this story told me experiences of sexual discrimination at work. That’s what today is about. Thousands of women are gathered in Washington, D.C., standing strong in the face of an uncertain future. Still thousands more are walking in sister marches worldwide. Today is about us standing in solidarity, in celebration, standing together.

To every strong woman in the wildlife field: thank you. You are proving to me, and the world, that we belong where we go. We are carving a space for ourselves and we’re not here just to look good or just for fun or just until our babies are born. We know our work, our contributions aren’t done. That’s why we’re here. Proudly. Unapologetically. For good.

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Signage from the January 21, 2017 Women’s March on Washington sister march in Columbia, Missouri.

These Aren’t The Poops You’re Looking For

Researchers have been using animal scat (read: poop) for decades, and for good reason.  Bits of identifiable food not fully ingested by the animal offer insights into diet, while many parasites pass eggs through feces.  More recently, physiologists have defined methods for extracting stress hormones from fecal samples, providing information on when animals become stressed and whether that stress is chronic.  Collecting scat is a great way to answer basic ecological questions on a given species.  Cool story, right?  Well, we’ve got a bit of a problem.

If you read through old research papers on carnivore diet, you’ll find that in many diet studies, researchers collected scats from live traps.  Say the target species is a grey fox.  The researchers set live traps, capture a grey fox, and discover a scat inside the trap.  It’s pretty clear that scat was made by the grey fox.  Easy identification.

field-guide-scatOne of the major benefits to studies utilizing scat today, however is that they are “non-invasive.”  That means researchers don’t need the animal in hand to conduct the study.  In turn, studies are cheaper and logistically easier.  The data (poops) are out there on the landscape, scientists just have to find them.  As long as they know the animal exists in the study area, they know its scat exists there too.

Until recently, a typical researcher conducting one of these non-invasive studies would carry a field guide on her poop collecting journeys.  When she wandered upon a scat sample, she could observe its shape, size, odor, and any associated tracks to determine who made the poop.  That’s right, a handy dandy field guide could tell her whether she was looking at the digested dinner of a bear, coyote, bobcat, red fox, grey fox, or domestic dog.  Or could it?

A team of researchers at Virginia Tech decided to test how handy that guide really was when it came to assigning appropriate species identifications to scat samples.  In other words, do carnivores leave scat samples different enough that a researcher can tell them apart, or is the researcher simply making an educated guess?  If the latter is true, how much are those guesses altering the study results?

They started by – you guessed it – collecting scats.  Every time they found a sample, they gave a species identification based on field guide descriptions of the most common carnivores found in their study area: the Virginia mountains.  Then, partnering with a lab at the University of Idaho, they used DNA left behind by the predator on the outside of each poop to confirm identifications.  These genetically based identifications were reliable; they identified the true pooper, and it wasn’t always the same as the field guide suggested.

Now the scientists decided to test if those incorrectly identified samples mattered.  Were they altering study results?  To find out, they conducted a diet study.  They looked at bobcat, coyote, and bear diet when the samples were identified using only field guides, then looked at diet for the three carnivores using the true, genetically confirmed identifications of the scat samples.  Details on using scat to discover dietary patterns in carnivores can be found in my Scoop on Poop series.

The researchers found they weren’t too good at assigning correct scat identifications using only field guides.  Coyote scats were only identified correctly in the field 54% of the time and bobcats had a similarly dismal field accuracy rate at only 57.1% of true bobcat samples identified correctly in the field.  Black bear scats, on the other hand, were easier to identify; almost all (95.2%) bear samples were identified correctly in the field, likely because they are much larger in size when compared to coyote and bobcat samples.

Sometimes the researchers incorrectly called bobcat scats coyote scats and vice versa…so what?  They’re probably after the same prey anyways, right?  As it turned out, that “sometimes” really influenced the results of the diet study.  When bobcat scats were misidentified, they were classified as coyote scats 98% of the time.  Similarly, bear scats called something other than bear in the field were called coyote 75% of the time.

Because they were classifying some bobcat scats as coyote in the field, it appeared that coyote diet was similar to bobcat diet (0.95 niche overlap, where 1 means identical diets and 0 means completely different diets).  In contrast, coyotes and bears appeared to have quite different diets (0.5 niche overlap) when using the field identification method.  In reality, bobcats and coyotes were tapping into some of the same prey resources, but not at the same frequencies.  Their true niche overlap, calculated based on those reliable genetic identifications, was 0.73; bears and coyotes actually shared more diet items than it seemed with a true niche overlap of 0.69.  The incorrectly identified scat samples provided a picture of how the carnivores were interacting on the landscape, just not the right one.

Scientists make a living on asking questions, and sometimes that means questioning their own methods.  In this case, it’s a good thing they did!  Moving forward in the realm of scat studies, the authors of the study suggest always corroborating field identifications of scat samples with genetic methods in the lab.  Read the complete study here.  The data are strong with this one.

New Certification Program Aims to Curb Human-Elephant Conflict

The orange to ruby red leaves coloring the landscape in my corner of the world tell the story of fall turning to winter. They warn of crisping temperatures and shorter days to come. With the natural world going dormant outside, I opt for hot green tea this afternoon. Wrapped in a blanket with a book in hand, the tea’s steam warms my nose. Its swirling dried leaves tell a different story, one from thousands of miles away that began hundreds of years ago.

India is one of the world’s largest tea producers, second only to China. Tea plantations established during the British occupancy of India in the 1800s took root and remained strong, even after the occupation ended. Today tea plantations have expanded and some of the larger tea companies are surrounded by entire communities of plantation workers and their kin, a necessity for tea companies producing and distributing product world-wide. But tea plantations have their cost. In northeast India, the cost is to the natural forest that has been replaced by tea, and to the endangered Asian elephant that wanders onto plantations in search of the forest that once was.

Elephants are highly mobile, moving across large swaths of land throughout the year. As herbivores, they commonly consume fruits and distribute seeds across the landscape in nutrient-rich feces, effectively working as forest farmers. When tea plantations are established or expand their boundaries, this activity degrades or replaces elephant habitat, creates movement barriers, and increases the odds of human-elephant interaction and conflict detrimental to both people and elephants.

Though it would appear tea growers and conservationists cannot see eye-to-eye when it comes to the Asian elephant, a new program is about to prove otherwise. The Elephant FriendlyTM Tea Certification Program was introduced recently at the Eastern Himalayas Naturenomics Forum, which this year was held jointly with the IUCN Asian Elephant Specialist Group meetings in Guwahati, India. The certification program aims to curb human-elephant conflict by creating economic incentives for tea growers to move towards practices that are safer for elephants and help mitigate conflict. At the Forum, major tea industry representatives learned about how they can take steps to become certified under the program and access growing tea markets by providing consumers with a choice of tea that supports elephant conservation.

Developed jointly by the University of Montana’s Broader Impact Group in partnership with the Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network, the certification program comes at a crucial time and place for endangered elephants. The program will launch with two pilot sites in the state of Assam in northeast India, a hotspot for human-elephant conflict and a major tea growing region. Six years of research capacity building and community-based conservation projects in the region, led by University of Montana’s Lisa Mills and Dr. Scott Mills, laid groundwork for this effort, and Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network’s Executive Director Julie Stein and the University of Montana’s Blackstone Launchpad and School of Business have helped move the program forward.

Elephant FriendlyTM Tea will be available to U.S. markets in 2017, and a portion of each sale will go back to support wild elephant conservation on the ground in tea growing communities. My afternoon tea will soon tell a whole new story, one in which conservation and corporations, elephants and people all win. That’s a story worth savoring.


Want to know more about Elephant FriendlyTM Tea? Contact Lisa Mills at

Is Your Mama a Llama?

“Is your mama a llama?” I asked my friend Dave.

“No, she is not,” is the answer Dave gave.

“She hangs by her feet and she lives in a cave. I do not believe that’s how llamas behave.”

“Oh,” I said. “You are right about that. I think that your mama sounds more like a… Bat!”

A page from the classic children’s book Is Your Mama a Llama? by Deborah Guarino.

A page from the classic children’s book Is Your Mama a Llama? by Deborah Guarino.

The classic children’s guessing book chronicles a llama’s search for its mama. In the end, we learn that only a llama mama really knows how to take care of a young llama.

Seems obvious, right? Yet without fail, every spring and summer, kind-hearted animal lovers across the continent take it upon themselves to “rescue” young wildlife. And every spring and summer, we learn that their attempts are unsuccessful.

Humans are poor caretakers for wildlife young.

Humans are poor caretakers for wildlife young. (Image credit: bison calf/The Huffington Post; seal pup/KIRO7)

Earlier this year, visitors to Yellowstone National Park “saved” a young bison calf that appeared cold by placing it in their SUV and transporting it to the park office. They were promptly ticketed, but the calf could not be reunited with the herd. It was euthanized.

In a similar incident this year, a woman found a seal pup on the beach near Westport, Washington and took it home. Upon realizing she had no idea how to care for the pup, she called authorities. The young seal was so weak that officials made the difficult decision to euthanize.


Fledgling songbirds appear helpless, but are still under their parents’ care. (Image credit: Hannah Warburton)

Some rescue attempt, huh? As it turns out, these “rescuers” were removing animals from a far more nurturing situation than they realized. Animal mamas commonly leave their young. Adult white-tailed deer find time to feed after hiding their spotted fawns in brush. Fledgling songbirds may look helpless, but adult birds are nearby to teach their young to fly and bring them food.

Of course there is a time and place for a proper rescue. Spot a road kill opossum with live young still clinging to her back? If you are genuinely concerned about the opossum population in your area, or if you just couldn’t live with yourself if you left the helpless young to die, then by all means, call your local wildlife rehabilitator and save the little ones!

Just don’t assume that a lonely baby means a mama-less baby. In the end, we’ll learn that wildlife mamas know best when it comes to caring for their young.

A page from the classic children’s book Is Your Mama a Llama? by Deborah Guarino.

A page from the classic children’s book Is Your Mama a Llama? by Deborah Guarino.

Hot Springs National Park

When I arrived at Hot Springs National Park, I parallel parked on the side of a relatively busy city street and dropped a few coins in the meter on the curb. As I strolled to the Visitor Center, I passed fountains with steaming water and people, weighed down with as many jugs as they could carry, waiting in line to take their share of the resource.

A fountain in front of Hot Springs National Park office space.

A fountain in front of Hot Springs National Park office space.

A truly unique Park, Hot Springs is the only National Park with:

  1. A town in the middle of it.
  2. Its own brewery.
  3. A resource you can take with you—the water.

The town and National Park are centered on bubbling spring waters, which historically brought people to the site. Native Americans believed the hot springs had healing properties and business minded individuals built the first bathhouses in the early nineteenth century to monetize the resource. Bathhouses competed for customers by offering spa-like services and claiming to have treatments for specific ailments. Sick and sore Americans traveled to Arkansas to bathe in the healing waters, many making multiple trips. But where does the water originate?

Rainwater falling in the area surrounding the hot springs spends thousands of years slowly seeping to somewhere between 6000 and 8000 feet beneath the surface. Here, it is heated by the earth’s fiery hot interior. Cracks in the rock created by several large faults located near Hot Springs offer water collecting deep underground a chance to rapidly escape. The escaping water reaches the surface at a temperature of 143°F. The steaming, safe-to-drink water pouring from fountains scattered throughout the town is at the end of a 4000-year journey.

The Fordyce Bathhouse was transformed into the Park Visitor Center, while another became an art studio and cultural center, one a brewery, and yet another is still functioning as a bathhouse and spa.

The Fordyce Bathhouse was transformed into the Park Visitor Center, while another became an art studio and cultural center, one a brewery, and yet another is still functioning as a bathhouse and spa.

Today, the National Park Service protects the historic bathhouses on Bathhouse Row as a cultural treasure. Visitors to the Park can still bathe in the healing waters, but I thought the brewery located in Superior Bathhouse made best use of the water. I tried six brews over my visit:

  • The Beez Kneez
  • McClard’s Barn Burner Farmhouse Ale
  • The Killer Irish Red
  • SPA (Superior Pale Ale)
  • Chaudfontaine Houblon
  • Palomino Extra Pale
The Superior Bathhouse Brewery offers flights of four beers each.

The Superior Bathhouse Brewery offers flights of four beers each.

Naturally, I came to the Park to spend some one-on-one time with nature. Though the Park hub is in the middle of a city, I found some time to hike the 9.6-mile Sunset Trail, the longest trail in the Park. I camped at the only provided campsite, which also offers RV hookups. The town is within walking distance of the campsite.

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If you are looking for wilderness, backcountry camping, and multiple days of hiking, Hot Springs National Park is probably not your best option. But, I found it refreshing and fun and it certainly offers amenities unlike other Park System sites.

I’m knocking all 59 National Parks off my bucket list.  Here’s my latest road trip map, which started at my home in Columbia and ended where I work in Houston, hitting Mammoth Cave and Hot Springs National Parks along the way. #FindYourPark

Mammoth Cave National Park

Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky conserves the world’s longest known cave system with 405 mapped cave miles. If outstretched, the caves could reach Chicago, IL or Charlotte, NC from their starting point in Kentucky, but in reality, they weave in and among one another like spaghetti.

Mammoth Cave maintains a constant 54°F temperature year round. New air cycles into the cave every day, seeping in through minute fractures in the rock and pouring out again through openings to the surface. Likewise, water reaches parts of the cave by dripping in through cracks in the sand- and limestone ceiling. When water reaches the cave at an exceptionally slow rate, it helps form wonderful cave structures like stalactites, stalagmites, columns, and popcorn.

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The cave continues to grow today as underground river ways deep in the earth eat away at the limestone walls. The cave’s sandstone roof protects its oldest tunnels close to the surface from rapidly collapsing due to surface waters, making it safe for people and wildlife to enter. Once inside, it is possible to experience complete darkness and complete silence. But, wildlife wouldn’t want to live in such a gloomy place, right? Actually, caves support an array of awesome animals.

When I took the Domes and Dripstones Tour at the Park, the first animal I saw was a cave cricket. The most abundant species in the cave, cave crickets have stocky bodies and spindly legs and only visit the surface about two weeks out of the year. The cave offers protection from insect-loving predators that could be skulking above. But, the blind cave beetle that specializes in finding and devouring cave cricket eggs and the cricket-hungry cave salamander are inescapable.

Cave crickets are the most abundant animal in Mammoth Cave

Cave crickets are the most abundant animal in Mammoth Cave.

Lurking in the subterraneous streams are another specialized group of animals. Eyeless cave fish adapted to life in total darkness by losing their pigmented skin and useless eye structures. The endangered Kentucky cave shrimp can also be found deep underground in cave waters.

A fan of fuzzier critters, I enjoyed hearing about the bats that call Mammoth Cave home. Eastern pipestrelle, little brown bats, and big brown bats all use the cave as a refuge while hibernating in winter or during the daytime when they are not outside foraging for food. Indiana bats and gray bats were once common in the cave, but are now listed as endangered species. All species of cave bat that inhabit Mammoth Cave are present in fewer numbers than they were historically, mainly due to an epidemic called white-nose syndrome.

At the Park, white-nose syndrome was first confirmed in a northern long-eared bat.

At the Park, white-nose syndrome was first confirmed in a northern long-eared bat. (Image credit: Steven Thomas, National Park Service)

On the surface, the Park proudly protects 37 square miles of backcountry and several miles of frontcountry trails. I observed deer, songbirds, vultures, hawks, and a black racer while hiking on over 17 miles of maintained backcountry trails.

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Nestled into the hills of south-central Kentucky, Mammoth Cave National Park is worth a visit. With front- and backcountry camping, a hotel, miles of trails suitable for boots, hooves, and bike wheels, and adventurous day-long or shorter, less strenuous cave tours, Mammoth Cave has a little something for everyone.

I’m knocking all 59 National Parks off my bucket list.  Here’s my latest road trip map, which started at my home in Columbia and ended where I work in Houston, hitting Mammoth Cave and Hot Springs National Parks along the way. #FindYourPark

How to Catch a Deer

Several years ago, I was having a relaxing morning at my parents’ house when my little brother walked inside, apparently exhausted. He went straight for the cabinet, plucked a cup off the shelf, filled it with water, and chugged the full cup…twice. Breath caught, he looked at me. “I tried to catch a deer.”

White-tailed deer are a fairly common site near our suburban North Carolina home. They make regular early morning appearances—regular enough, in fact, that our garden is now fully fenced in an effort to keep them out. They are fun to watch from the window, coffee in hand, but they tend to make haste when we step outside. Apparently my brother took their fleeing as a challenge. He chased a group of deer through our backyard and into the neighboring woods and if you ask him, “I almost touched one.” He admittedly didn’t know what he would have done with an entire live deer, but he knew he’d figure it out in the moment. Classic.

Sometimes deer biologists need to catch deer and needless to say, my brother’s methods are not the most effective. Instead, they use clover traps, rocket nets, and dart guns to safely capture live deer and conduct research. Reasons for catching live deer include deploying GPS or radio collars to track movements and survival, collecting blood, inserting individual identification tags, and to help answer a variety of other research questions.

Clover Traps

Clover traps are rectangular, netted traps with a door that closes when a trip wire is triggered by the deer. The traps are baited with corn behind the trip wire. The trip wire is high enough that critters like squirrels, raccoons, and birds can enter and exit the trap without getting caught. Researchers check clover traps at least once daily. If there is a deer inside, they open the door, pull it out, and process the deer in whatever way is relevant to the specific project. Some clover traps are designed so that researchers can collapse the trap on the deer when they arrive, helping immobilize the deer while they remove it from the trap.

Researchers with the Missouri Deer Project remove and process a captured deer from a clover trap.

Rocket Nets

Rocket nets are used to capture a variety of wildlife, including wild turkeys, waterfowl, and deer. A rocket net set-up consists of rockets, or cylindrical tubes with a series of holes on the back end, tied to the front end of a large net. Rocket charges (black powder) inside the rockets are connected to a long wire that links all rockets in the series. The far end of the long wire connects to a detonator in a waiting researcher’s hands. Deer are attracted to a bait site in front of the net. When the rockets are deployed, they soar over the deer, pulling the net with them. Heavy anchors on the back end of the large net prevent the rockets from pulling the net completely over and beyond the deer. The tug from the anchors causes the rockets to drop and the net entraps the deer. Researchers waiting nearby race to the rocket net site and rapidly untangle and process the deer according to the project objectives.

Researchers with the Missouri Deer Project deploy a rocket net to trap a doe.

Dart Guns

Dart guns are exactly what they sound like—guns that shoot darts. The darts are filled with an immobilization drug, which varies by species and project, though there are guidelines, regulations, and approval processes governing how immobilization drugs can be used. When a deer is shot with a dart gun, ideally in a meaty part of the body like the ham, the drug releases into the deer. Researchers process darted deer while they are chemically immobilized and reverse the drug before letting the deer go on its way. Researchers use dart guns from tree stands over baited sites or even while driving around in a truck, so long as the deer will stand in range of the dart gun. Like other guns, dart guns must be cleaned and sighted in regularly to ensure accuracy.

I got the opportunity to practice with several dart gun models while learning to safely immobilize wild animals at a Safe-Capture workshop.

I got the opportunity to practice with several dart gun models while learning to safely immobilize wild animals at a Safe-Capture workshop.

These methods tend to be the most common in North Carolina and Missouri where I am familiar with deer research. Other states may deploy different methods to catch deer, however. Drop nets rest on poles above a bait site and fall at the will of the researcher when deer are present. Box traps are like a fully enclosed clover trap. In areas with long swaths of open ground without timber, some research projects hire helicopters to find and capture deer using a net gun. Regardless of the capture method, research allows state and federal agencies to better manage our deer herds. With a thriving deer population, nature enthusiasts from hunters to adorable animal lovers (to backyard deer chasers) will enjoy their presence for years to come.