Monday, February 7, 2011

So a fox, a coyote, a wolf, a mountain lion, and a dik-dik get into a car…

Sometimes research questions lead to strange bedfellows, or in this case, car fellows. Predation has a huge influence on animals (you really don’t want to get eaten), and one ongoing research topic for Dan and Team Marmot is how marmots assess and respond to predators. While not directly involved with these research projects, I did get to see a progression of projects in my years at RMBL and occasionally lend a hand with transportation. So, if you want to ask if a marmot is afraid of different predators, how might you test this? Sound is important for many animals, including marmots, so you could see how the marmots react when you play them the sounds of different predators. Turns out, marmots react differently to sounds of different predators.

Impressively realistic!
(All photos courtesy of Dan Blumstein)

Well, most mammals also rely heavily on their sense of smell, so a natural next question was, do the marmots respond differently to the smells of different predators. But how do you consistently and safely present the smell of predators to marmots? Why, you go online and buy animal urine, of course. And thus the next year found marmoteers traipsing around the sites with bottles of predator pee. Very convenient, but quite smelly (which, I suppose, was the point after all). Sure enough, the marmots reacted differently to smells of different predators.

Predictably, those results led to yet another question, which was (you guessed it), How do marmots respond to the sight of different predators? And yes, one year later found us out at RMBL with life-sized cardboard cutouts of a fox, a coyote, a wolf, a mountain lion, and a dik-dik (a small African antelope used as a control in this case).

And suddenly we faced an unusual and previously unknown space issue. After all, bottles of urine take up very little space, and the acoustic equipment, while very heavy, took up a relatively compact amount of space. The fox and dik-dik were small and easy to handle. The coyote was pretty manageable. It started getting tougher with the wolf, which was pretty tall and pretty long. But ultimately, it was the mountain lion, specifically its tail, that really complicated matters.

The mountain lion's tail presented a unique spatial challenge.

Mornings became a clown car act, cramming all the animal cutouts, trapping and observation gear, a big box for another experiment going on at the time, and oh yeah, four or five researchers into the field car. Someone was always up close and personal with the mountain lion’s tail, and the animals themselves were always lay cozily one on top of the other, coyote snuggled up to antelope pressed against wolf. Taking everything out was only marginally better. Often, we found ourselves walking through RMBL or along the road with predators in hand, to the curious stares of passers-by. I like to think that we livened up many a tourist’s morning that summer. And the outcome of it all? Yes, the marmots respond differently to the sight of different predators.

I'd be scared of this, too!

Of course, in nature, predators give off multiple signals, so now, short of moving onto the taste or feel of predators, the next logical question seems to be, How do marmots respond to combinations of multiple predator signals? I’m looking forward to the results of the next experiment with a composite predator effect…but I sure don’t envy the driver of that car.

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