New Urban Wildlife Research Program Seeks Help Tracking Coyotes, Foxes

  • In January, the Wohlsen Center for the Sustainable Environment launched the Urban Wildlife Research Program to study Eastern coyotes, honeybees, red foxes and red-tailed hawks. Under the guidance of Sarah Dawson, director of the Wohlsen Center (center), Ari Whiteman ’13 (far left) and Heather Letzkus ’13 (second from left) are studying Eastern coyote behavior and the species’ attitudes toward humans. Meanwhile, Assistant Professor of Biology Dan Ardia (far right) and Nicholas Tucciarone ’12 (second from right) are exploring the local red fox population.  

By Jason Klinger

The Wohlsen Center for the Sustainable Environment at Franklin & Marshall College is looking for a few thousand sets of sharp eyes.

In January, the center started its Urban Wildlife Research Program, which focuses on the study of four species: Eastern coyotes, honeybees, red foxes and red-tailed hawks. The project’s creators are Sarah Dawson, director of the Wohlsen Center, and Dan Ardia, assistant professor of biology.

Dawson is asking Lancaster residents to help map sightings of foxes and coyotes so faculty and student researchers can study their behaviors and educate residents about the important roles the animals play in the local ecosystem. On Feb. 13, the center launched a website where residents can submit sightings.

“We want to work with the community for two reasons,” Dawson said. “The first is that both species are relatively elusive, and we can use all the help we can get in spotting them. The second is that we’d like to promote education about urban predators in the area.”

Neither the coyote nor the fox is a threat to humans, Dawson said. They strictly target small game—and the occasional trash can.

Under Dawson’s guidance, Heather Letzkus ’13 and Ari Whiteman ’13 are studying Eastern coyote behavior and the species’ attitudes toward humans.

“The first half of the study, which started this semester, is determining where the coyotes are, their proximity to people and their comfort levels with humans,” said Whiteman, whose research is supported by a prestigious Cargill Environmental Scholarship. “Part two is education, and that starts this summer.”

The Eastern coyote is a coyote-wolf hybrid, typically weighing between 35 and 55 pounds, according to the Pennsylvania Game Commission. That’s roughly twice the size of the species’ more recognizable cousin, the Western coyote. Eastern coyotes are generalists, which means they feed on almost anything, including fawns, frogs, fruit, hares, insects, mice, squirrels, woodchucks and, in more developed areas, domestic cats and garbage. 

Letzkus’ role is to interview people who report sightings. “Hopefully, they will give us permission to go on their property and look for signs of scat (fecal matter) and paw prints, which will help us determine if there is a colony in Lancaster.” She says homeowners near woodlands are most likely to spot a fox or coyote, but she expects to field reports of sightings near urban areas, too. “We’re growing and expanding development into their territory, which means they are running out of places to go, so they will come closer to areas populated by humans.”

A key part of the education process is convincing a fearful public not to trap or shoot the animals.

“Western coyotes are generally quite brazen. We don’t know enough about the hybridized Eastern coyotes,” Whiteman said. “But if it turns out their moods are hybridized, as well, we may be killing a species that never posed a threat to our communities in the first place.”

Plus, killing the animals risks affecting the local ecosystem, Letzkus said. “If we just shot everything that was scary, it would have a detrimental effect on the environment.”

Red foxes are only slightly less elusive. Ardia says they frequent the rural neighborhoods west of campus and Spalding Conservancy, the wooded area adjacent to F&M’s Baker Campus. Ardia and Zachary Zimmerman, a high school biology teacher at Solanco High School, have set up motion-sensitive “game cameras” at the conservancy to track the animals, which are considerably smaller than coyotes (measuring 18-35 inches in length and weighing 5-30 pounds).

Nicholas Tucciarone ’12 is taking the research a step further. With funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the biology major is developing methods to identify individual foxes based on DNA found in their hair. This spring, Tucciarone and other members of the “fox team” will set up hair-collection stations—wooden planks scented with a lure that capture tufts of hair—on the properties of willing homeowners who report fox sightings. Ardia, Assistant Professor of Biology Jaime Blair and their students will study the DNA findings.

“Our hope is to get a sense of the habitat that the foxes are using in Lancaster city and to use the genetic information to estimate how the size of our local population affects the foxes,” Ardia said.

Think you’ve seen an Eastern coyote or red fox? Let the Wohlsen Center staff know.

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