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Jon Pauli's research project on the effects of recreational shooting on black-tailed prairie dog colonies in northeastern Wyoming produced two surprises.
First, Pauli discovered that risk disturbance, contrary to popular opinion, overwhelmed the factors of density dependence.
The second surprise: Pauli won the Southwood Prize, a prestigious annual award of the British Ecological Society's Journal of Applied Ecology. Pauli's paper, titled "Risk-disturbance overrides density-dependence in a hunted colonial rodent, the black-tailed prairie dog Cynomys ludovicianus," was co-written by his faculty adviser, Steve Buskirk, a University of Wyoming zoology and physiology professor.
"That was a nice surprise, for sure," says Pauli, a graduate student in UW's Program in Ecology (PiE). "When I heard about it, I went to Steve and said, ‘Did you know about this&?rsquo;"
Adds Buskirk, "He was like, ‘Are you holding out on me&?rsquo; I wasn't. I was just as surprised as he was."
The Southwood Prize, named in honor of the late Professor Sir Richard Southwood, one of the leading zoologists of his generation in Britain, is awarded to an author at the start of his or her research career.
Pauli's research was published in 11 pages in the December 2007 edition of the Journal of Applied Ecology, a major international publication that combines ecological science with direct relevance to environmental management.
Through his fieldwork, which consumed most of three summers, Pauli found that recreational shooting had a pronounced impact on individual black-tailed prairie dogs and entire colonies, including increased stress and other behavioral issues.
And, unexpectedly, Pauli's research showed that the prospect of risk adversely affected reproduction.
"The conventional wisdom regarding small mammals is, the more you shoot them, the faster they come back. That's density dependence," says Buskirk. "But what we found was that the risk disturbance overwhelmed anything that was going on with density dependence.
"And that," he says, "was a surprise to a lot of folks."
Not only were the colonies older, they weren't as healthy. The prairie dogs spent more time underground and less time foraging for food because they were scared by the threat of danger, Pauli says.
"And when they did come above ground," Pauli says, "they were being vigilant and scanning for predators."
He adds, "Unlike solitary mammals, prairie dogs live in dense aggregation and so a single shot disturbs the entire colony. It has effects beyond that one individual prairie dog that a hunter might be aiming for. The effects were really dramatic."
Pauli, of Madison, Wis., earned his master's degree in zoology and physiology from UW in 2005.
For more information on the British Ecological Society, go to the Web site at www.britishecologicalsociety.org.