|« Creepy Critters—Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches||Autumn Meadowhawks Arrive Fashionably Late »|
Thursday, October 27, 2011
Ferrets, Dogs and Digital Donuts
When you share a habitat with a population of small animals, you tend to overlook them. Most of us in the Midwest barely notice the squirrels that dart around our yards and parks every day.
The same holds true for residents of southeastern Montana, where prairie dogs aren’t normally given a second thought by human residents, except when those residents get pestered by the burrowing rodents and try to eradicate them from their farms and ranches.
That reaction has fallout, particularly to the black-footed ferrets, which also share this habitat and feed primarily on shrinking populations of prairie dogs. As their food source dwindles, so too do endangered black-footed ferrets.
And that is what brought Lincoln Park Zoo to southeastern Montana this week. Rachel Santymire, director of Lincoln Park Zoo’s Davee Center for Epidemiology and Endocrinology, Rachel Bergren, vice president of Education, and Katie Hawkins, coordinator of student programs, have been in the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation since Monday, hosting workshops for local students and educators, providing hands-on tutorials for using monitoring tools such as camera traps, and checking in on animals in the field.
“A lot of people were born and raised on ranches here and oftentimes there is a misunderstanding about the importance of prairie dogs to this ecosystem,” explained Santymire, who began working with a black-footed ferret recovery team at the behest of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “We’re here to help residents develop skills that they can employ in their environment and impart information that teachers can use in their science-education initiatives.”
“We’re exploring a different perspective about living with these species and the response has been great,” said Bergren from her hotel room yesterday. “If we can get kids and teachers excited about wildlife in their own backyard, then it’s going to make it easier to continue to support these types of initiatives.”
One way to get people excited is to get them out in the field. Tonight, Bergren, Santymire, Hawkins and some of the educators hope to load into a truck and ramble across the prairie looking for black-footed, four-legged residents. When they “spotlight” ferrets, the carnivores freeze for a moment, their eyes reflecting emerald green, then dart down into burrows.
Santymire then places electronic “donuts” over the burrow openings, which read the microchips she implanted in these individuals back in 2008.
If the donuts don’t report a signal, that means the individual popping its head through the hole is likely an offspring of a chipped ferret, which is encouraging news…a validation of the work being done by the people who share the land with these creatures and the scientist and educators who’ve come all the way from Chicago.
Upon their return to Chicago, Santymire and Bergren will host Black-Footed Ferrets—Back from the Brink on November 17, part of Lincoln Park Zoo’s Wine & Wildlife series. To learn more or reserve your space, go here.