Badlands National Park

20180610_091043Have you ever wanted to travel back in time? The striated mounds and formations of Badlands National Park will take you there—75 million years ago, to be exact. The Badlands are a rugged landscape formed through deposition and erosion. Deposition began 75 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period. As time passed, the landscape and climate in western South Dakota changed, dictating the types of sediments that were deposited in the area. Over the years, the place we know as Badlands National Park transformed from ocean to rainforest to swamp to open grassland.

Today, the differing sediment types that accumulated across millions of years are visible thanks to erosion. Beginning around 500,000 years ago, the Cheyenne River flowing out of the Black Hills, a mountainous region to the west of the Park, began to wash away all of those deposited sediments, forming the incredible landscape we call the Badlands. The Badlands are eroding at an astonishing rate of one inch per year, exposing fossils that offer insights from an earlier time. The lowest portions of the Park are the oldest, while the highest peaks are more recent. By and large, the most common fossil found in Badlands National Park is the oreodont, a deer-like herbivore, but rhinoceros, alligator, and ancient sea creatures are also uncovered annually.

I spent two nights in Badlands National Park in June 2018 as part of a longer trip through western South Dakota. We made the most of our time there by attending two ranger-lead programs, embarking on a long loop hike, and stopping at the many overlooks to enjoy the scenic landscape. Along the way, we spotted bighorn sheep and bison and there was no shortage of prairie dogs; we even saw a coyote in camp one morning. We were also reminded by one of the park rangers that half of the Park is after dark! We saw Jupiter and its Galilean moons through a telescope while the ranger explained that when we look up at the stars, we are peering back in time. It can take light thousands of years to travel from a star to earth, so what we see in the night sky reflects a previous time. The lack of city lights in the Badlands makes for ideal star-gazing.

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The best part about Badlands National Park? It is a giant playground! The staff know that human disturbance can’t cause more damage to this quickly eroding landscape than a heavy rainfall. That means you are free to run, jump, and climb off the beaten path, weaving your way through the park any which way you like. In the grand scheme of earth’s existence, the Badlands will only be around for about one million years. You don’t want to miss this vanishing geological treasure!

I’m knocking all 60 National Parks off my bucket list. Be sure to follow Summer, Scientifically for some behind the scenes science and fun from my trips.

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.

Serra da Canastra National Park, Minas Gerais, Brazil


Pampas deer graze in a Cerrado landscape.

The Brazilian Cerrado is a globally unique and quickly vanishing savannah that is home to incredible plant and animal biodiversity. Considered a wooded savannah, the Cerrado is a vast, open landscape interspersed with clumps of dense, woody vegetation. Threatened by over-exploitation through primarily agricultural development, the disappearing Cerrado could take with it charismatic fauna like the maned wolf along with hundreds of plants found only in this region. With over 71,000 hectares, Serra da Canastra National Park is one of the largest tracts of federal land protecting this ecologically special landscape.

In Brazil, federal land is classified into one of many land-use types, ranging from exploitative use of timber and other products to preservation without recreation. The objective of the national park classification is to primarily preserve biodiversity and secondarily provide environmental education and recreational opportunities for citizens and tourists. In Serra da Canastra National Park, visitors can drive a long and winding road through a typically open, rolling Cerrado landscape. Lucky guests will witness giant anteaters toppling over the large termite mounds for a snack; crested caracara and a pair of pampas deer defined the wildlife experience during our drive down the dirt road.


The Casca D’Anta waterfall in Serra da Canastra National Park.

At the end of the road, we were met with a natural swimming hole and a trailhead. The approximately 2-mile (3.5km) trail wound down a steep mountain, through grassy and woody vegetation. The trail terminated at the base of a 610ft (186m) waterfall. The Casca D’Anta waterfall is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the region and it was there we took the opportunity to dip our toes into the frigid São Francisco river. Flowing 1,811 miles (2,914km) across Brazil, the São Francisco is the longest river in the country, bringing water, hydroelectric power, and habitat for hundreds of riverine fishes to five states before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean. Serra da Canastra National Park was initially established to protect the spring where the São Francisco is born as well as the first several miles of the river. The water in the park is remarkably clean and refreshing, and at around 43°F (6°C), taking a dip at the base of the falls is not for the faint of heart. Just bordering the park is a privately-owned swath of land that is protected under a conservation easement. We took the time to hike the short loop trail on the easement, which winds through a forested area past three waterfalls and two large natural swimming holes along the São Francisco.


Cheese is matured for up to two years in this room at a farm in Minas Gerais.

Outside of the opportunities to explore the natural beauty of the Cerrado, any trip to Minas Gerais would be lacking without exploration into the local culture of cheese-making. Originating during Portuguese exploration of the Brazilian interior, cheese-making has become a tradition passed on through generations. The traditional cheeses are made with raw cow milk and have a mild, salty flavor. Slight differences in taste throughout the region are a result of the differing vegetation that makes up the dairy cow diets. Despite the rich culture surrounding cheese-making in Minas Gerais, few people outside of Brazil have ever heard of this tradition. Changing national laws that regulate where the cheese can be sold within the country helped amplify the product nationally and recently, Minas Gerais cheese is increasingly recognized at an international scale. We visited two cheese makers in the area, one of which offered a small tour of their facilities and both of which offered incredible cheese sampling platters. My favorite had to be a purple cheese that was matured in wine and by the time we left Minas Gerais, there were at least six rounds of expertly-matured cheeses tucked alongside our luggage.

Like all trips to somewhere incredible, the Serra da Canastra National Park weekend was too short. Personally, I call that feeling a good excuse to come back; the cheese and the trails will certainly be waiting!

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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.

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.