Wild Things Make Their Hearts Sing

While studying small mammals in the Blue Ridge Mountains, juniors Marie Young and Cole Prezant discover a love for field work.

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January 24th, 2023

In a small kitchen in western North Carolina, the smell of butter wafts through the air as Marie Young pulls shortbread from the oven. Several blankets drape across a worn couch and metal shelves line three of the walls, each packed with popcorn, peanut butter, tea, and ramen packets. The kitchen is the home base for 15 UNC-Chapel Hill students living at the Highlands Biological Station for the Fall 2022 semester.

Cole Prezant, Young’s research partner, enters the kitchen and the two briefly discuss the day’s events. The pair set traps earlier that morning and returned to them a few hours later to see which small mammals were captured. Prezant was a bit disgruntled to find two red squirrels enjoying the mixed nuts in two of the cages.

“There’s a really sharp learning curve when working with small mammals,” Young explains. “The bigger they are, the harder they are to handle, and squirrels are very strong.”

Over the semester, the pair have come to fawn over the shrews, mice, and chipmunks they catch. They’ve even named a few of the chipmunks — Floppy seems to be a station celebrity. Squirrels, though, make Prezant’s palms sweat as he slides on an extra-thick pair of gloves. They can bite and make data collection difficult.

Last semester, Young and Prezant surveyed these furry creatures to assess the health of the local forest. They completed their project at the UNC Institute for the Environment’s Highlands Field Site, a semester-long experience in Western North Carolina to help undergraduate students learn about the research process and guide their career goals.

Fieldwork firsts

Prezant calls himself a “rodent-wrangling researcher,” and the process is one of the reasons he loves this work.

“This is my first rodeo in undergraduate research,” he says. “Some parts of science are meticulous and repetitive, but the way we are doing research, it never gets old.”

Twice a week, Young and Prezant take peanuts, sunflower seeds, and walnuts into the forest and spend a few hours setting two types of live traps. One, called a Sherman trap, is a long aluminum tube used to catch smaller animals like mice and voles. The other, a Tomahawk, is a metal cage used for chipmunks and squirrels. Neither are harmful to the animals.

As they head out to set the traps, the pair bemoans upcoming class registration, reflects on moments from the semester, and plans out their next pickleball match. Upon completing their initial task, Prezant grabs a long multi-pronged rod that looks like something from a 1980s sci-fi movie. It’s called a Yagi antenna, but he refers to it as “the squirrel detector.” A few of the squirrels in the area have radio collars, and once a week, Prezant heads out into the woods to “play a game of hot and cold” with them.

As Prezant gets closer to a squirrel, his receiver emits a high-frequency beep. Eventually, there is so much interference between the collar and Prezant’s antenna that he can confidently mark the location of the squirrel. The detector allows the team to collect additional information on the variety of mammals in the area and exposes the students to the tools used by biologists.

Later that afternoon, Young and Prezant retrace their steps to check each trap. Most remain empty, but when there is an animal in them, the two get to work. They record weight, sex, reproductive condition, and the mammal’s tag number if it has one. Sometimes they can get all the data they need, but with squirrels they are lucky if they can manage to measure their weight.

Mammal maps

While Prezant takes the lead on handling the squirrels, Young enjoys recording the data: litter depth, soil moisture, the distance from streams or roads, and canopy cover. After combining this information with the GPS locations of each trap, they upload it into a geographic information system — a software that helps them superimpose their data onto a map to find trends between small mammal activity and forest features.

This data is vital for monitoring how humans affect local populations. While this region is historically a habitat for red squirrels, Prezant and Young have caught a lot of grey squirrels. Grey squirrels have a more varied diet than red squirrels, so they survive better in areas where development may be limiting red squirrels’ food.

With an eye on the creatures in the forest, Young and Prezant’s research is an effort to mitigate potential threats.

After a long day of data collection, they head back to the station’s kitchen, where other students file into the warmth as the sun fades. The 15 of them met just a few months ago, but now they share a plethora of inside jokes, often cook together, and have developed a communal love for pickleball.

“We are all out here because we love nature,” Young says. “We want to make a difference in the world, and we’re passionate about the environment.”

Marie Young is a junior double-majoring in environmental sciences and English and comparative literature within the UNC College of Arts and Sciences.

Cole Prezant is a junior double-majoring in biology and neuroscience within the UNC College of Arts and Sciences.