Beyond the Books and into the Field for Summer Animal Tracking

Beyond the Books and into the Field for Summer Animal Tracking

by Beth LaMontagne Hall

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Ecology and microbiology research at UNH Manchester

Each day, Joshua Linnane walks a portion of an 800-acre plot of undeveloped land on the outskirts of Manchester. The senior biology major at the University of New Hampshire at Manchester eyes the ground and trees for hair, scat and rub marks on trees. He’s looking for signs of wild mammals in this urban forest. Linnane has three motion detection cameras set up in the woods, located in the area known as Hackett Hill. He leaves each camera for up to two weeks to eliminate his human scent from the area and later retrieves the card to see what animals crossed its path.

Linanne is one of UNH Manchester’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship grant recipients. Linnane is conducting a 10-week study and after will compare his findings to data collected 12 years ago by then-student Christine Andrews, UNH professional tutor and lab instructor. “I’ve found coyotes, raccoon, something that looked like a bobcat, porcupines, opossums, chipmunks and a couple of non-mammal species, like turkeys, blue herons and turkey vultures,” said Linnane. On one of his morning walks, Linnane said he wandered upon a moose and her calf. “It’s really only five minutes out of the city and the diversity in this area is huge.”

Linnane estimates he walks about 25 to 35 miles in the woods each week, which he says has made him hyper-aware of any minor changes caused by nature and any signs left by animals. The study has had the unintended effect of honing his tracking and wildlife identification skills. The research has also been a great opportunity, Linnane said, because it will give him a leg up when applying for graduate programs. “I had to put together the proposal and go to meetings on funding and I had to create a budget. It gave me a lot more responsibility and experience,” said Linnane. “When it comes to doing this on a graduate level, I’ve already been involved in a couple of research projects, so it will be easier to hit the ground running.” Steve Pugh, Associate Professor of Biology, has overseen many student wildlife research projects during his time at UNH Manchester, including Linnane’s project. The Hackett Hill property gives students a rare opportunity to study a wide range of wildlife close to an urban area. It also gives students a chance to engage in a valuable real-life application of the science they learn in the classroom. Linnane’s work is one of three wildlife studies being overseen by Pugh this summer. Senior biology major Derek Burkhardt is also working with Pugh and Andrews on a research survey of mice species across Southern New Hampshire. Burkhardt goes out to various sites early in the morning each weekday to inspect the traps he’s placed in the woods. Burkhardt takes a sample of tissue for DNA testing later and logs the sex, weight and other important data before letting the mouse go. The goal is to identify the number of deer mice and white-footed mice in the wild and the range of area each inhabit. Because these two mice are difficult to distinguish by looks alone, previous studies on these mice may not be as accurate as previously thought. Now with Genomics on their side, Burkhardt, Pugh and other students working on the study hope to compare mouse DNA in hopes to identify and show where each species of mouse resides.

Jessica Landry, another senior biology major, has also been spending her summer tracking mice for her capstone project. Instead of focusing on species identification, Landry is tracking mice movement to better understand how they navigate throughout their habitat. Each day Landry checks her traps and records important data from the mice she’s caught, but before letting these little mammals go, Landry dips their hind quarters in ultraviolet powder. She then returns to the woods at night with a special black light that shows her where the mice ran once they were released. She sets markers on the path and later measures the distance of the path the mouse took to its hole and the distance if the mouse had taken a direct route. “We’re finding they like to travel on top of logs and under leaves and low hanging trees so they don’t make as much noise,” which helps protect mice from being captured by predators, said Landry. Both Burkhardt and Landry see these research projects as opportunities to learn new skills and expand on what they’ve learned in the classroom. Burkhardt said he’s become better at identifying signs of wildlife to becoming more comfortable handling wild animals in the field.

Biology student Derek Burkhardt
and Professor Steve Pugh

“I feel like I’m doing professional work in the field,” he said. “These courses are so hands-on. They really allow you to go beyond the book or go beyond the computer to learn and really use your hands.” Landry, who had worked on a mouse trapping research project before this one, said both have helped her determine her career path after college. “I really, really liked it. It has helped me figure out that I ultimately want to work in the woods and work with animals,” she said. Learning hands-on is an important experience for any student of the sciences, whether that student plans to do professional lab work, go on to graduate study or teach children. “These are great experiences that not only serve as the culmination of their undergraduate experience, but also set the stage for the next part of life, whether it’s grad school or moving on to the workforce,” said Pugh. Student’s also gain important experience working independently, he added. “Anytime you enter a research project, things happen that are unpredictable. Things change and you have to respond to that and in ways that are not coming from me. It comes from the student,” Pugh said. Doing hands-on work is what UNH Manchester graduates say makes research projects so valuable. UNH Manchester graduate in biology Joseph Potvin was one of the first students to work on the Hackett Hill small mammal study with Pugh. He later went on to study at UNH Durham, where he got his master’s degree in microbiology. Potvin now works for Bristol Myers Squibb as a supervisor of the microbiology group, monitoring manufacturing areas for biological contaminants, like bacteria. “Research projects teach you about the real world application of something you learned in the classroom,” said Potvin. Strict classroom study doesn’t provide the same hands-on experiences, something Potvin thinks should be expanded in college studies. "Students need more interaction with real-world science applications, like writing grant proposals, writing reports and presenting their findings. That’s why undergraduate research projects are so great. You actually get to see it and do it.” The annual Undergraduate Research Conference, held every spring at the UNH Durham and Manchester campuses, is a great opportunity for students as well, said Pugh. After gaining the experience in the field, it is important to be able to share findings with other professionals. "The URC gives students that experience," said Pugh. For undergraduates looking to do research during their time at UNH Manchester, Pugh said it’s never too early to start looking for opportunities. Talking to an advisor or a professor can help students get in touch with a faculty member working on a project that’s interesting to them. When it comes to participating, students shouldn’t be shy, he said. “Go knock on a professor’s door,” said Pugh. Request more information about the biological sciences program.

Bookmark and Share