Finding the elusive eastern spotted skunk

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Documentation of the mid-century eastern spotted skunk population decline by Gompper and Hackett (2005).

The eastern spotted skunk is an elusive, potentially rare and endangered species of skunk native to much of the eastern US between the Rockies and the Appalachian Mountains. The species was common throughout its range at the beginning of the twentieth century and people often saw eastern spotted skunks on family farms. During the 1940s and 1950s however, eastern spotted skunk populations crashed. The population decline is well documented, but reasons for the crash remain unclear. Hypotheses for the decline range from the expansion and modernization of agriculture to overharvest to disease. Likely, a combination of several concurrent factors lead to the decline. Eastern spotted skunk populations never recovered, remaining at low levels across much of their historic range.

Today, researchers are working with state wildlife agencies to identify where eastern spotted skunks are and determine which resources they need to maintain healthy populations. In some states, large-scale surveys for eastern spotted skunks resulted in no sightings, suggesting the species is locally extinct in parts of its historic range. Other states have identified populations and are working to understand whether the populations are at a healthy level.

In Arkansas, eastern spotted skunks were historically present across the entire state and recent surveys have revealed the species still has strongholds in the Ouachitas, or the western region of the state. It was with this knowledge the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission funded my research to determine whether eastern spotted skunks are present in the Ozarks, and if so, which resources they’re using. I conducted a large-scale camera trap survey in north-central Arkansas to answer these important questions. Although I recorded eastern spotted skunks at some camera trap sites, preliminary results suggest the species occurs at extremely low population levels in this part of the state.


An eastern spotted skunk visits a camera trap site in north-central Arkansas.

Using the information gathered from my camera survey, I decided to produce a species distribution model. This type of model uses presence-only data to evaluate where a species is most likely to be present based on characteristics of locations where we know eastern spotted skunks spend time. Using presence-only data means that I will only use camera trap locations where eastern spotted skunks were recorded. For example, from approximately 75 camera trap locations, eastern spotted skunks were photographed at only 4 sites. Failure to record an eastern spotted skunk at a camera trap site doesn’t necessarily mean the species is absent at that site; it simply means we don’t know for sure that eastern spotted skunks use that area. Thus, the locations where I recorded eastern spotted skunks on camera traps are “known locations.” I will use the 4 known locations where eastern spotted skunks were confirmed and exclude the remaining 71 camera trap locations for my species distribution model.

In addition to the 4 known locations from my camera trap survey, the eastern spotted skunk species distribution model will use an additional 72 known locations from eastern spotted skunk surveys by other researchers in Arkansas and southern Missouri. I will determine what the environment was like at the known locations, including how close they are to roads and other infrastructure, how close they are to water sources, and how dense the forest is at each location. Using this information, the species distribution model will predict where eastern spotted skunks are most likely to be across all of Arkansas and southern Missouri. For example, if most of the known locations are in areas where the forest is thick and dense, the model will predict that eastern spotted skunks are most likely to be in other thickly forested parts of the state and less likely to be in open fields.

Although the large-scale camera trapping survey I conducted resulted in limited eastern spotted skunk photographs, the species distribution model approach allows me to use these data. The final product will be a heat map of Arkansas and southern Missouri, with warm tones suggestive of eastern spotted skunk populations and cool tones meaning eastern spotted skunks are not likely to occur in those areas. The map will be useful for state wildlife agencies as they continue to determine where the species is and create management plans to prevent further population decline of this unique mammal.


Will you be at The Wildlife Society Annual Meeting in October 2018? Come to my talk on Tuesday, October 9 to see the results of the species distribution model.

The Tayra in a Changing Brazilian Landscape

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Illustration of the Mustelidae Family from Handbook of the Mammals of the World: Volume 1 by Toni Llobet.

While many mammalian species found across Central and South America are declining due to habitat loss, forest fragmentation, and agricultural development, the tayra is trying something different: persistence. The tayra is a medium-sized omnivorous mammal that looks like a mix between a cute teddy bear and a giant weasel. In fact, it is a member of the weasel family (Mustelidae), which includes weasels, otters, wolverines, and a diverse range of other noodle-shaped mammals. It’s this fun-to-look-at species that brought me to Brazil this summer (or winter, depending on which hemisphere you’re reading from). With support from the Brown Graduate Research Fellowship Program through the College of Agriculture, Food, and Natural Resources at Mizzou, I partnered with Assistant Professor Rita Bianchi and her lab to analyze data they collected on the tayra.

The Bianchi Lab Group works extensively on mammalian ecology in Brazil. To achieve their varying objectives, many students use camera trap data. Camera traps are a remote-sensing technology that allow researchers to gather information on exactly where mammals are at specific dates and times. Over the past several years, the Bianchi Lab Group has methodically scattered camera traps throughout state parks and other natural areas in São Paulo State. These camera traps captured images of several mammalian species, including giant anteater, puma, agouti, and of course, tayra! Pairing the date and time stamp from the camera trap images with the camera trap location and species present in the photo, researchers can answer a breadth of questions about when and where animals spend time. Answers to these questions can help scientists and land managers understand the resources needed for species to thrive.


Two tayra are captured on a camera trap in São Paulo State, Brazil.

Despite a growing shift from natural forest to agriculture throughout Brazil and other parts of Central and South America, tayra seem to be handling increasingly fragmented forests just fine. Why bother looking at data for an animal that we aren’t too concerned about? First, we must understand what a species needs if we are to keep it on the landscape. For example, what type of forests do tayra live in? When are they most active and what foods do they rely on? Can tayra survive in small forest fragments? Answers to these questions allow land managers to ensure tayra needs are met and prevent a future decline. Secondly, other species of mesocarnivore (medium-sized carnivorous and omnivorous mammals) are not faring as well as the tayra. Understanding the specific tayra traits that have allowed it to persist longer in this changing landscape could offer insights on why other species are declining.

Using camera trap data collected by the Bianchi Lab Group, we are working on two objectives: 1) Determine tayra habitat selection and 2) Evaluate tayra activity patterns. The first objective will help us understand where tayra are choosing to spend time, including which type, size, and structure of forest. We can also determine whether the presence of other species, like large predators or potential prey species, dictate where the tayra are on the landscape. The second objective will provide insight on when tayra move around the landscape and whether this activity changes by season. We anticipate this research will provide a much-needed update on tayra ecology in the current Brazilian landscape. Stay tuned to this blog for more insights on life in Brazil, tayra ecology, and other wildlife research.

Leaving room for cream and conservation: Can coffee and wildlife co-exist?

Grown in the tropics worldwide and shipped to markets internationally, coffee is truly a global product. The coffee bush originates in Ethiopia where its leaves, fruits, and seeds were first consumed by African aborigines. Over the centuries, coffee, and the act of drinking it, made its way from Ethiopia to the Middle East and into Europe. As it gained popularity, European countries tried unsuccessfully to cultivate the plant. Those countries with colonies in tropical regions capitalized on the opportunity to produce coffee in those warmer climates beginning in the eighteenth century.

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Coffee grows successfully in a variety of management schemes. This diagram from a 1999 research article illustrates the five structural categories for growing coffee.

Today, coffee is a staple crop in tropical countries worldwide. It can be grown under a variety of management schemes, ranging from a monoculture in full sun to shading the understory in a diverse system. Although these systems exist along a spectrum, researchers defined five major categories most coffee plantations fall under: unshaded monoculture, shaded monoculture, commercial polyculture, traditional polyculture, and rustic. The unshaded monoculture consists of coffee bushes grown in full sun with no other bush or tree species present, while a shaded monoculture includes one additional species of tree. In a shaded monoculture, the additional tree species is typically nitrogen-fixing (meaning it returns nitrogen to the soil) and has market value. The commercial polyculture and traditional polyculture systems include coffee bushes with a diverse mix of trees in the canopy. The commercial polyculture only uses additional species that hold market value, while the traditional polyculture maintains useful native and non-native species in the understory and a native forest canopy. On the far end of the spectrum, the rustic system completely removes the native understory and replaces it with coffee, while maintaining the native forest canopy.

Research suggests that coffee bushes grown under a shaded canopy can offer higher quality, better tasting, and more coffee beans, but the global demand for coffee prompted growers to shift to the unshaded monoculture system. These farms use special varieties of coffee bushes that are more successful without shade, but they frequently require more inputs, including pesticides. In addition, sun grown coffee offers little to no environmental benefit, as many species of wildlife cannot thrive among a monoculture system and other plants that could provide diversity on the landscape are discouraged in these systems. Research shows that even shaded monoculture plantations do not provide enough structural and species diversity for wildlife to thrive. Despite global recognition that biodiversity in the tropics is worth saving, deforestation as a means to create agricultural land remains the top threat for wildlife in this region of the world.

smithsonian sealrainforest alliance sealLuckily, coffee- and nature-loving consumers have options to demand coffee from farms and plantations that actively work to support biodiversity while producing coffee. Programs including the Rainforest Alliance ECO-O.K. Program and the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center Bird-Friendly Coffee Initiative offer certification programs for farmers that are implementing eco-friendly practices. The programs seek to provide consumers with information on shade-grown coffee and its environmental benefits, create specific production standards for coffee farms and plantations to encourage environmentally-friendly production practices, and sell coffee from certified farms and plantations at a premium price to environmentally-conscious consumers. Studies have shown that certification standards are successful in identifying farms that truly conserve biodiversity.

There are still major hurdles to shifting certified coffee from a specialty market to the mainstream. Certified farms and plantations enjoy long-term benefits ranging from improved soil health to additional marketable products, but certification costs can make reaching this achievement impossible for poor farmers. Additionally, many conservation-oriented certification programs do not consider social equity issues in certification standards. Finally, consumers are often confused about the meanings behind special certification labels, leading to variable success in markets globally. Partnerships between groups working toward biodiversity conservation in the face of agricultural expansion and social equity in rural agrarian communities could help bridge the gap between these major global concerns.

With an unfailing global demand, producers worldwide, and innumerable groups actively working on biodiversity conservation and social equity in the industry, coffee is well situated to serve as an example of harmony between agricultural production and biodiversity conservation. Have you considered leaving room for conservation in your cup?


This post was developed based on a review paper on coffee, biodiversity, social equity, and eco-friendly certification standards I wrote as a class assignment. Find a list of sources I used here.

A Turtle on a Tall Mountain

A couple of summers ago, I was trapping flying squirrels in the North Carolina mountains.  It was a normal day at work and I was mostly concerned with the squirrel trapping grid we had laid out atop Roan Mountain.  That was until we found a turtle.

The unassuming box turtle found atop Roan Mountain.

Box turtles are docile, adorable, and make for great photo ops, but rather than gather it up for some Instagram-worthy pics, we only looked at it, confused.  This turtle was hanging out in the middle of a spruce-fir forest 1,875 meters above sea level.

Let me put this in perspective.  Roan Mountain is one of the tallest mountains in North Carolina.  It reaches so high that many wildlife species common across North Carolina don’t dare venture to the peaks of the Roan Highlands.  Ticks are unheard of there, a unique scenario for anyone working summer months outside in the southeastern U.S.  When North Carolina experienced a massive heat wave that summer, the squirrel team switched from long-sleeved t-shirts to short-sleeved for a couple of weeks.  The temperatures are cooler and the forests different on a peak as tall as Roan’s.

When we found this turtle on Roan Mountain, we were simply stupefied.  We didn’t think box turtles as a species existed at such heights, but there it was—a turtle, on a tall mountain.  It offered no apology or explanation, so like any good scientist, we did some digging later that day and discovered what we already suspected—box turtles had never been recorded at such a high elevation in the southern Appalachians.  This turtle was a maximum elevation record.  This turtle was noteworthy.

This morning I am preparing to step into a highly-publicized movement and declare my love for science to the world.  I am participating in the March for Science in Columbia, Missouri.  This public space is not commonly occupied by scientists.  It is true that science has had its moments, but we largely stay out of sight, fueled by our own curiosity.  We sit in our labs and offices running experiments, recording data, and writing papers.  But, this movement has been brewing for months and unlike a quiet turtle on a tall mountain, we are stampeding into this unexpected space, unified and loud.

I anticipate today will be easy.  I am marching with friends and fellow scientists and we will be surrounded by smiling faces who support the work we do.  After the march, we will discuss our research with the science-loving public at a local festival.  But then what?  Are the ears on Capitol Hill listening?  Are climate change deniers opening their minds to real scientific evidence?  Are we really making strides in how the public perceives science?

Today is not a challenge.  Today we collectively throw ourselves into the public eye, a space where we aren’t expected.  Where we go from there is the challenge.  Perhaps we scientists belong in everyday life the way a box turtle belongs in a spruce-fir forest on top of a mountain.  It’s unexpected, not wrong.  So here’s my suggestion: don’t leave this public space we’ve come crashing into.  Stay visible.  Keep talking about your work, keep putting it out there in a way that anybody can digest.  And don’t apologize about being in that space.  Don’t offer an explanation.  Be present in that space until it’s expected.  Be noteworthy.  Be a turtle on a tall mountain.


Read the turtle note here.

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