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UW Wildlife Majors Learn to Conduct Research by Catching Chipmunks

November 15, 2016
chipmunk in cage
This least chipmunk was one of 174 trapped at Happy Jack this fall by students in Merav Ben-David’s “Wildlife Ecology and Management” class. Students are investigating the effects of patterns of summer precipitation on the timing of chipmunk reproduction, birth rate and abundance of least chipmunk in forest and sagebrush habitats. Students will present their findings Dec. 5 during the departmental Brown Bag seminar. (Kristina Harkins Photo)

For the last decade, Merav Ben-David and her wildlife students at the University of Wyoming have been chasing least chipmunks up at Happy Jack, located outside of Laramie.

Each year, they trap them, measure the little critters, and quantify their habitat and food availability. And, each year, the students in Ben-David’s “Wildlife Ecology and Management” class come up with a hypothesis or question they want to study regarding these small mammals.

“What makes this different than other labs or similar activities is that, every year, the class develops a new research question,” says Ben-David, a UW zoology professor, of the CURE or Course-based Undergraduate Research Experience. “We spend the rest of the semester addressing the question with the data we’ve collected.”

Least chipmunks are the smallest and most abundant species of chipmunks in North America. They are distinguished by gray to reddish-brown stripes on their sides, and a grayish white color on their underparts. Their bushy tails are orange-brown in color.

In past years, the wildlife majors developed questions that revolved around how climate change affects chipmunk abundance; how chipmunk density affected their vital rates (birth and death rates); and whether chipmunks use sagebrush habitat on a temporary basis.

This year’s question emerged in mid-October.

“The students decided to investigate the effects of patterns of precipitation on the timing and reproductive success, birth rate and abundance of least chipmunk in forest and sagebrush habitats,” she says.

Students will present their findings Dec. 5 during the departmental Brown Bag seminar.

“We come up with questions based on our observations and experience, or from what other researchers have done in the past,” Ben-David says. “You have to have prior knowledge to ask good questions.”

This fall, students would often trek to Happy Jack daily to seek out the small animals, which weigh, on average, between 43-50 grams. The largest chipmunk the students captured weighed 72 grams. During October, students often tracked the chipmunks twice a day via radio telemetry.

“We try to trap as many as we can. It is not a controlled experiment,” Ben-David says. “One thing we are trying to establish is the abundance of chipmunks. This year, we trapped 174 unique individuals 323 times.”

In 2010, her students caught 333 individual chipmunks -- the most ever collected -- 500 times. The number of chipmunks trapped depends on a number of variables, Ben-David says. These include environmental conditions, food supply and predator abundance -- all of which affect their abundance.

The chipmunks became the focus of the study because they are small and fairly easy to handle; are resilient to trapping; and exhibit interesting behavioral patterns, such as communal hibernation.

“There are enough of them we can trap and get good data for modeling,” Ben-David explains. “But, the students also get very attached to them because they are extremely cute.”

Students even name some of the little critters.    

people sitting on the ground working on traps

Students in Merav Ben-David’s “Wildlife Ecology and Management” class prepare Tomahawk live traps to capture chipmunks at Happy Jack for research. (Kristina Harkins Photo)

This research allows UW undergraduates to participate at every stage of a study, says Kristin Harkins, a second-year master’s zoology student, from Duvall, Wash.

More often than not, undergraduate students are exposed to research as technicians, either in the field or in the lab, and they are present for the data collection and, possibly, data analysis stages in a project, Harkins says. However, as part of the “Wildlife Ecology and Management” class, the students get to walk through the initial project design; set up traps and collect data in the field; analyze the data and interpret the results.

“While they don't get to design the project's methods, they develop an understanding of ‘why’ and ‘how’ we set up the design, and they can follow the project all the way through and see how each capture and value measured in the field adds up to results of the study,” Harkins says. “I can't think of any other opportunity for undergraduates to have this level of involvement within an entire research project at a classroom level.”

Instead of just listening to Ben-David talk about how to set up a trapping grid, conduct mark recapture analyses, estimate home ranges, use radio telemetry, develop a research question, collect good field data, sample vegetation, and use all of that information to answer the research question, students are actually able to participate firsthand, says Brittany Wagler, a senior from Wapiti, majoring in wildlife biology and management.

“We hear a lecture about the methods, and then apply them directly to our class project. There is no better way to learn the methods,” says Wagler, vice president of the UW student chapter of the Wildlife Society. “This is an amazing opportunity and extremely beneficial, especially for those who haven't had any field experience. Students are now able to say they have three to approximately 70 hours of trapping and telemetry experience, which is super beneficial for getting a wildlife job. This project has turned into an awesome long-term data set. Nobody else wants to study chipmunks, so it's even more valuable than the benefit to us students.”

Jace Cussins, president of the UW student chapter of the Wildlife Society, has similar sentiments.

“The chipmunk project has helped me learn valuable skills for being a wildlife manager. It is unlike any other class I have been in, because it provides multiple opportunities for on-the-ground, in-the-field research,” says Cussins, a senior from Cheyenne, who is double majoring in wildlife and fisheries biology and management, and environment and natural resources. “In addition, as a class, we were able to discuss what we wanted to investigate from the data we collected. I really look forward to analyzing the data and looking at the results.”

Over the years, this chipmunk experience has helped Ben-David’s students decide to enroll in graduate school and continue honing their research skills. And, it keeps them asking questions.

“Surprisingly, the students’ knowledge goes up, but their confidence in the knowledge goes down,” Ben-David says of the chipmunk research experience. “They read the textbook, and they think they know much. Then, when they go out into the field, they learn that ecology is not as clear-cut, and our knowledge has limits.”

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