We are not alone. From Long Hill in Beverly and Appleton Farms in Ipswich to the woods behind Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, over 23 mammals have recently been spotted, documented and, well, admired.
Gregory S. Keller (pictured), associate professor of conservation biology and curator of birds and mammals for the Gordon College Museum of Natural History, was awarded a research grant from the Nuttall Ornithological Club last year to study bird populations in the area. As a third-year professor from New Mexico, Keller wanted to better understand the human impact on the local environment while providing more hands-on learning and scientific methods in his classes. The more Keller observed the North Shore, though, the more he realized the study needed to include other wildlife. When two undergraduate students approached him about gaining research experience, they set out to catch--and release--some critters.
“I’ve always been interested in measuring how human activity affects an area, and with so many large tracts of space here on the North Shore as well as the coastal influence, we had a chance to study what we wouldn’t find elsewhere,” Keller said.
So throughout the month of June, Keller, Eric Lindemann ’11, biology, of Oxford, Connecticut, and Jonathan Harris ’11, biology, of Troy, New York, worked with the Trustees of Reservations (who manage Long Hill and Appleton Farms) and began their strategy. Because of their academic interests, Lindemann developed a project primarily studying small mammals, and Harris worked with various types of chipmunks and squirrels. They also documented larger species as they were observed.
Each night Lindemann and Harris set traps using peanut butter and oats as bait and cotton as bedding, and each morning they checked the traps to see who had wandered in. If they “got one,” the team would identify it, bag it, tag it, measure it, and then release it back into the woods. In all they set 75 live traps at 12 different sites for three consecutive nights in the designated areas.
“We’ve been surprised by a few things so far. It turns out there’s a lot more out there than we knew,” Keller said. “For instance, we captured a few southern flying squirrels, which is not easy. They’re ferocious little guys. I was bitten numerous times!”
Keller said they were also surprised by the presence of some species. A smoky shrew appeared in a trap, which was surprising because they are rare and small in size. Several red-backed voles also appeared—a small mouse usually not known to be in southern New England.
Though the team knows there are many more species on the North Shore, Keller and his students documented 23 mammals in all, including the red squirrel, gray squirrel, eastern chipmunk, eastern cottontail, American beaver, a variety of shrews, river otter, coyote, red fox, raccoon, mink, Virginia opossum, and white-tailed deer. The next step in the study is scheduled for August when two other students will help Keller analyze the findings in the context of the region using a Geographic Information System (GIS). Keller hopes to publish their findings in academic journals, but mostly he believes the research is valuable because of the need to “minimize human impact so as to maintain the ecological integrity of the area.”
“We’re much more likely to conserve something if we understand it,” Keller said. “That’s why each part of this study is really valuable.”