by Terence P Ward
Rhinoceroses and polar bears are teetering on the edge of extinction. Invasive snails, shrimp, and other critters are threatening to push out native species. Deer, a quintessential icon of nature in some eyes, are endangering cars and gardens alike through overpopulation in the view of others. In short, there’s a lot of bad news about the animal kingdom, and much of it seems to be caused by the presence of human beings. It might seem like enough to cause a nature lover to give up hope, but there’s at least one bright spot to look to: the mesopredators are adapting to human encroachment.
A raccoon and a skunk, both mesopredators, share a meal of
Mesopredators are the smaller meat-eating animals; the most familiar kinds in the Hudson Valley include foxes, skunks, and raccoons. But according to Roland Kays, a wildlife expert from North Carolina State University who gave a lecture on the subject at the Cary Institute, the very human beings who threatened many medium-sized predators are now making it easier for them to make a comeback. A surprising variety of predators are now living in urban and suburban environments, close enough to people to avoid being eaten by more ferocious beasts, but hidden enough that their existence is rarely even suspected. This is life in the anthropocene, the proposed name for the modern geological period, when humans represent the most significant impact upon the planet.
A combination of advancing technologies, including very tiny tracking tags and sophisticated, motion-sensitive camera traps, have allowed Kays and other researchers to find out a surprising amount about these mid-sized meat-eaters. The same big data techniques that marketers use to track online movements are being applied to this sphere of scientific inquiry, and revealing which of these animals are finding ways to adapt to and benefit from human activity.
The most successful are those animals which Kays said are “preadapted” to life alongside the dominant primate on the planet, such as raccoons, which have such advantages as a high social tolerance and an omnivorous diet. Preadaptions have helped some animals come back from near-certain extinction, but they also have had human help in the form of limited hunting seasons, cessation of deforestation, and an overall shift in the philosophy of game management in the last hundred years.
Mark Twain might as well have been speaking about the fisher when he said that reports of his demise were exaggerated. A distant relative of the weasel, the fisher was believed to be headed for extinction because it could only survive in old-growth forests. Apparently, no one informed the fishers themselves of this limitation, at least not the ones who are currently thriving in Albany, and much farther south as well. Like weasels and ferrets, fishers are comfortable in tight spaces, and they use this advantage to squeeze through culverts underneath busy highways. That’s why Kays has watched their movements as they hunt in territories quite unlike those deep forests, such as the cloverleaf where the Thruway meets Central Avenue in Albany. And because they are relatively new to the area, it’s a veritable smorgasbord for them: Kays shared an anecdote about a squirrel eating on a branch who made the mistake of ignoring a fisher walking underneath. Squirrels in the Hudson Valley don’t expect an animal weighing four to six pounds to climb as easily as they do, a lesson that particular squirrel learned a bit too late. Cameras show seven times more fisher activity in urban areas than wild ones, although it’s not clear why that’s the case. One important lesson learned from fisher activity is that yes, wild animals will definitely use “critter crossings” when they are available to cross highways safely.
Coyotes are also learning about city life, although not as quickly. A lot of coyotes die on the bumpers of cars in the Albany area, Kays said, which is a marked contrast from the situation in Chicago, where vehicle deaths are rare. His theory is that there are simply more “country coyotes” in the Hudson Valley, which are not wise to the rules of the road, while in Chicago that sort of ignorance has been bred out of the beasts. “New York City will be the test of that theory,” he told the audience, and it’s a test which won’t be long in coming: he displayed pictures of coyotes, as well as fishers, roaming that urban landscape. Coyotes are big enough to make smaller predators like foxes and cats nervous, which is one reason those animals tend to hunt in suburban backyards where the coyote packs are not yet roaming. Coyotes and fishers alike are doing better in the eastern United States than out west, likely because they don’t have to contend with even larger predators, like wolves and mountain lions. Yet.
These findings wouldn’t be possible without eager volunteers to help collect the data. Through a program called eMammal (emammal.wordpress.com), Kays and his team in North Carolina are recruiting people to help in that work. Participants must be willing to purchase and maintain a camera trap according to the program’s exacting specifications and then catalog and send the data in for analysis. Eventually all of that information is collated through the Smithsonian Institution so that other scientists can crunch and analyze to their hearts’ content. While the program is still in its mid-Atlantic infancy, expansion to all parts of the country is part of the plan. In the meantime, those who want a taste of what’s caught by camera traps are invited to follow @camptraplive on Twitter.
Predators are a healthy part of any ecosystem, and while they might pose a risk to small house pets allowed to roam free, they also provide benefits, such as clearing gardens of uninvited pests like groundhogs, without the use of poison or firearms. Humans have tipped the balance of nature in crazy and unintended ways, but it appears that nature is finally tipping it back.