Following the Connected Trail
At the break of dawn before classes begin, wildlife and fisheries biology graduate student, Cady Etheredge, and her fifteen-student Creative Inquiry team climb into a Clemson lab van and drive along a bumpy dirt road to the old agriculture center on campus where the outdoors are the classroom. In their waders and jackets, they grab their equipment and trudge through mud and swamp water to the same parts of the forest they revisit every week.
Why? To find and study raccoons-which are a vital component to Etheredge's created experiment that she and her students are researching. But it's not just raccoons that Etheredge's focus is on-they are also studying coyotes. "We want to know if raccoons are more vigilant in coyote presence because that tells us raccoons view coyotes as a threat, and if they view them as a threat, then it might make sense to leave coyote populations to bring down raccoon populations," Etheredge said. There appears to be more coyotes when there are less raccoons, so the goal is to figure out why. Etheredge and her team conduct this research by trapping raccoons in enclosures containing coyote scat treatment that the students mix from a facility in Utah, and watching to see how the raccoons react by watching their behavior on hidden cameras. Etheredge believes that this experiment will show if the presence of a coyote ultimately impacts the raccoon's behavior by watching the footage to see how much corn and how many sardines are eaten, and whether or not other raccoons show up and for how long they stay.
Etheredge also believes that the overpopulation of the coyotes might not be as negative as one might think compared to other instances of abundant species in history. "We used to have red wolves here [in Clemson], but after European settlement we basically eliminated all of them. We can't really get red wolves back, and we can't get rid of coyotes, so we're wondering if coyotes might fit in that red wolf niche in that spot in the ecosystem." Matt Kynoch, a senior also studying wildlife & fisheries biology, feels that eliminating coyotes is both unnecessary and detrimental to nature. "There's a lot of push right now for coyote removal because the SCDNR (South Carolina Department of Natural Resources) encourages hunters to shoot coyotes. Hunters see coyotes as competition, but it's not like hunters are trying to restore balance, it's just that they want to remove that competition." By studying the effect coyotes have on the raccoons, Etheredge and her team will attempt to analyze how the coyote overpopulation is affecting the ecosystem, and whether or not their presence is influencing raccoons, and perhaps other animals such as quails and turkeys.
Although it requires a lot of hard work and some early mornings, Etheredge's team experiences a lot of fun times, and all of her students rate their exposure to the outdoorsy project as very influential in terms of their ideal future goals. Junior Olivia Souther says that studying the raccoons in real life has taught her more about research than any classroom lecture. "You don't know how research works until you do it yourself. I learned how frustrating it can be, but also how rewarding it can be." Trudging through the mud at 7 a.m. is worth it-nature is both the teacher and the classroom and Etheredge's students have had much to learn from it.