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Out West student blog

Lions, Tigers, and Bears. Oh My!

By Catie Mong 12cmong
B.S. Earth Systems '16 and M.S. Earth Systems '17
Santa Lucia Conservancy

“Lions, Tigers, and Bears. Oh My!,” goes the famous quote from Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. It’s rare to have lions, tigers, and bears share the same range. Although in the case of the Santa Lucia Preserve in Carmel California, we’re talking about mountain lions (Puma concolor), American black bears (Ursus americanus), and California tiger salamanders (Ambystoma californiense). The latter is one of five endangered species on The Preserve. Endemic to the state, California tiger salamanders (CTS) rely on vernal pools, stock ponds, and other seasonal wetlands for reproduction. The population at The Preserve is particularly important since they are one of the few purely native populations (many other populations have hybridized with non-native salamanders). While pond sampling only found CTS in one pond in The Preserve, environmental DNA tests (using pond water to try and find trace DNA) came back positive for three ponds!

Earlier in the summer, most of my time was spent collecting data for the monitoring projects (grasslands, soils, birds, ponds). Most of the field work for these studies has wrapped up, except for the wildlife cameras, which collect data year-round. This project has been going on for over three years and over 1.5 million photos have been processed.

While most photos are of deer or bobcats, it’s not uncommon to find a mountain lion walking past the camera. It’s estimated that there are six mountain lion with territories in The Preserve. This number can fluctuate when females have cubs, as juveniles will stay with their mother for nearly two years before dispersing to establish their own territory. A few weeks ago, I made an animation for Dr. Christy’s talk for The Preserve members about mountain lions. The dots represent the monthly total of mountain lions seen at each camera, and the size of the dot corresponds with the number of lions. This link also takes you to the web version.

Animation of the monthly total of mountain lions seen at various camera traps in the Santa Lucia Preserve. Visualization: Catie Mong

A rarer find on the camera traps are black bears. Black bears typically are only found in The Preserve during the summer—peak berry season. On our last camera trap transect, one of the cameras showed two black bears with one slightly bigger than the other. It’s likely the mother with her growing cub, or perhaps an early breeding season male and female pair. Either way, news of black bears always sends a wave of excitement over The Conservancy staff. Below is a gif Dr. Christy made of the black bears by stitching together photos from the camera trap.

Rare sighting: two black bears captured on one of the Santa Lucia Preserve camera traps. Video: Dr. Christy Wyckoff

Whenever the camera detects motion, it takes a series of 10 back to back images. While this can result in observing interesting animal behavior (bob cats investigating the cameras, rutting deer etc.), it also means that something other than an animal (for example, wind blowing grass into the frame), sets off a lot of pictures that we must manually delete. Getting rid of non-wildlife pictures is the bulk of any camera trap project. Supposedly there is some expensive software that uses machine learning to automatically filter photos. But until the day that it’s affordable for non-profits, you can find me waging war against the growing number of grass photos collected on a weekly basis.

That’s the nature of scientific work: it can be filled with exhilarating days of field work followed by weeks of unglamorous data processing. But I wouldn’t trade a second of it.

As tedious as filtering the camera trap photos can be, it’s a necessary job both for data collection and Preserve outreach (a slide show of camera trap photos highlights is routinely updated for the residents and many participate in the program themselves by monitoring cameras set up on their properties). That’s the nature of scientific work: it can be filled with exhilarating days of field work followed by weeks of unglamorous data processing. But I wouldn’t trade a second of it. I’m dismayed that my internship at Santa Lucia Conservancy is already coming to a close, but am extremely thankful for the opportunity. My last few weeks will be filled finishing up a pilot roadkill prediction study that I started as part of my Geographic Information Systems (GIS) course last spring. I know it’s going to fly by. As sad as I am that my summer at Santa Lucia is almost over, I’m looking forward to going back home to Texas before school starts. Like Dorothy, I must say that there’s no place like home.

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