By Katie Peterson, Denver Zoo Education Keeper
The month of March was full of so many exciting personal firsts for me! First time driving eight hours on my own, first time seeing a wild badger and a wild bob cat, first time working as a field research assistant, and my first time observing prairie dog breeding behavior! All of these exciting firsts are thanks to being a member of John Hoogland’s 2014 Prairie Dog Squad.
Last September in our quarterly Animal Information Meeting, Matt Herbert from Denver Zoo’s Conservation Biology department gave a presentation to all of us keepers on how to get involved in Denver Zoo’s Conservation Biology projects in the field. He mentioned that there would be a prairie dog field work opportunity in March 2014, and with those two little words, I was sold. Then an email came out the following January announcing an opportunity to participate as a volunteer research assistant. The assistant would aide Denver Zoo Research Associate, Dr. John Hoogland in his work on the behavioral ecology and conservation of Gunnison's prairie dogs (GPDs) at Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico. I immediately contacted my manager about being involved and applied to participate. The flyer read, “The only prerequisite is enthusiasm for field research in behavioral and population ecology. If your interest is genuine, then I guarantee that your experience will be worthwhile.” Having little to no experience with field research, I wasn’t sure how enthused I was about the work, but I knew with certainty that I am genuinely interested (to put it mildly) in prairie dogs and any involvement would be worthwhile.
I headed down to New Mexico’s beautiful Valles Caldera National Preserve (VCNP) on March 15th. Once there, I found the mountain home that I would be staying in with four other volunteer research assistants for the next 10 days. It was here that I began my awesome experience as a prairie dog research assistant. I woke up every morning at dawn, pulled on my four layers of pants, at least five layers of tops, made my lunch, and joined my fellow research assistants on a short walk to meet up with the boss, John Hoogland, for our drive to the site in VCNP where we would spent the next 10-12 hours. This site is where John set up five observation towers (about 4 feet off the ground) overlooking a portion of a GPD colony. We each climbed into our assigned tower with our day pack, binoculars, clipboard, stop watch and walkie talkie, and there we would stay until the GPDs went to bed (around sun down).
My job up in that tower was to observe marked individuals and document the GPD’s behavior. We were watching for behaviors such as fights, chases, territorial disputes, kisses, dispersals, and mating. We also watched for predation. In the 10 days I was there we saw two bobcats, a badger, numerous coyotes, and two golden eagles, lucky for the GPDs, none of them were preyed upon in that time span. I also helped with live trapping and marking. Each prairie dog in this portion of the colony had a large black marker on each side of its body (usually a number, sometimes paired with another distinguishing mark such as black rear legs or a ring around the belly) to clearly identify each dog with something that could be seen through binoculars. The markers were painted on the GPDs with a liquid that acted like over the counter hair dye, dying the fur black. Some of the markers were so clear and sometime the GPDs were so close that binoculars were not even needed!
I had a wonderful experience working on John Hoogland’s Prairie Dog Squad and I thank John and Denver Zoo for allowing me to be a part of it. Hopefully, now with a little experience under my belt, I will have the opportunity to be more involved in Denver Zoo’s various Conservation Biology projects throughout the state of Colorado, North America, and the world.