Hubbard Fellowship Post – S’Mammals with Jasmine

This is a post written by Jasmine Cutter, one of our 2014-15 Hubbard Fellows.  All photos are by Jasmine.

Howdy, Prairie Ecologist friends!
I remember how much I looked forward to the Fellows’ posts before coming to the Platte River Prairies, so I apologize for the glacial pace of my updates.  A considerable amount of my time and brainspace over the last two months has been occupied by small mammals (or s’mammals, as I prefer to call them). There are definite challenges to undertaking a project during the growing season (namely balancing project time and stewardship time), and throughout the process of the project and the summer there have been some unexpected surprises (mostly good), and a lot, a lot of learning.

Mike Schrad, Nebraska Master Naturalist and my small mammal project mentor.

Mike Schrad (left), Nebraska Master Naturalist and my small mammal project mentor.

In the briefest of terms, I’ve been tromping through our Derr sandhills (a unit which includes both restored and remnant prairie on the edge of the Platte River Valley), battling cows, thunderstorms, and a lack of sleep in the pursuit of learning more about the small mammal community in this unit. I was initially drawn to this site because the Derr sandhills contain pocket mice (Perognathus flavescens) and Northern grasshopper mice (Onychomys leucogaster). The pocket mice are minute, streamline and silky, whereas the grasshopper mice are beefy and aggressive (and probably also soft, but getting your finger near enough to find out is tricky), yet, despite their differences, they’re both endemic to sandy soils. As these critters are relatively unusual, my study will give us a chance to learn more about their habitat preferences, and hopefully enable us to manage the site in a way that ensures the continuation of healthy populations. Although these two species have remained the most endearing through out my study, my affection has also expanded to include shrews (they have venomous saliva and black-tipped teeth!), voles (ferocious teddy bears) and harvest mice (very agile and keep a neat nest). Deer mice tend to have a heavy parasite load and botfly sores (not to mention the possibility of hantavirus and carrying lyme disease), and therefore are often pretty icky. At this point, I am done with trapping for the most part. Soon, I will be collecting vegetation and site data for each trap site (that’s ~370 sampling points!), and this winter, I will be seeing if there are any relationships between the presence of certain species and site characteristics.

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Beefy lil grasshopper mouse, so-called due to their carnivorous diet. At night, they sing to defend their territories.

Pocket mouse. The clip on its tail is what is attached to the scale used to weigh them. While it is undoubtedly a little uncomfortable, there is no permanent damage. The clip is a helpful way to hold onto animals so I can take a photo. It’s essential to my study that I am able to document how the pelage (fur) color varies between individuals.

Pocket mouse. The clip on its tail is what is attached to the scale used to weigh them. While it is undoubtedly a little uncomfortable, there is no permanent damage. The clip is also a helpful way to hold onto animals so I can take a photo. It’s essential to my study that I am able to document how the pelage (fur) color varies between individuals.

Scary shrew teeth. Unlike the rest of the similarly-sized critters I caught, shrews are not rodents. They are in the order Soricomorpha. They are mostly carnivorous and have saliva that paralyzes their prey.

Scary shrew teeth. Unlike the rest of the similarly-sized critters I caught, shrews are not rodents. They are in the order Soricomorpha. They are mostly carnivorous and have saliva that paralyzes their prey.

There have been a few surprises during this project. For example, I have discovered that cows don’t like science. They have eaten my flags, licked my traps several feet off my transect, and squashed a few for good measure. If only their curiosity could be used more constructively!

One of the best surprises was opening one of my traps and finding a least weasel inside! I was waaayyy more intimidated by this critter than it was by me. Despite its ferocity, it was impressively lightweight. This littlest weasel was longer than the thirteen-lined ground squirrels that I also caught that day, but considerably lighter. The ground squirrels maxed out my 100 gram scale, whereas the weasel was only 70 grams! The weasel was also impressively smelly, living up to the family name of mustelidae.  I was a little worried that no other small mammals would go into that trap the next night because it smelled of predator, even after I sprayed it with Lysol. However, the harvest mouse I caught the next night was undeterred. No wonder s’mammals have such a short lifespan. Another surprising find on a different transect was an embarrassed-looking leopard frog. My bait seems to attract a lot of crickets, so I imagine that’s what lured the frog. And the cutest capture was these two baby voles that managed to wander into one trap.

Thirteen-lined ground squirrel (Ictidomys tridecemlineatus). When I open a trap, I gently plop the critter into a bag in order to minimize handling exposure. I can weigh, identify and sex the critter while it’s in the bag. It’s safer for me, and the animal is only in there for a few seconds to a minute.

Thirteen-lined ground squirrel (Ictidomys tridecemlineatus). When I open a trap, I gently plop the critter into a bag in order to minimize handling exposure. I can weigh, identify and sex the critter while it’s in the bag. It’s safer for me, and the animal is only in there for a few seconds to a minute.

Weasel tryptic. Although none of these manage to capture the full length of the weasel (Mustela nivalis), they do manage to capture what you’d be likely to see - a reddish blur.

Weasel tryptic. Although none of these manage to capture the full length of the weasel (Mustela nivalis), they do manage to capture what you’d be likely to see – a reddish blur.

Baby voles!

Baby voles!

In addition to the excitement of peeking into every closed trap, there have been other perks to the project. I’ve gotten to see way more sunrises and sunsets than I would have otherwise. I love the freshness of the mornings, how the grass glows orange, and the spiderwebs glisten, and how much my mood (and finger mobility) improves once the sun crests the sandhills. I’ve gotten to hear the weird robotic chirpings of the swallows at sunset. The light at these times is able to make pretty much any photo look amazing, so it’s a little less discouraging to compare some of my photos to Chris’. I have also really enjoyed the slower pace of sampling, of covering my transect by foot. I spend a lot of time in the prairies, but infrequently do I have time to slow down and appreciate how the prairie community changes meter by meter. I have gotten to know my transects well, and I look forward to seeing if/how the patterns I’ve noticed play out in the data.

I’ve taken thinking like a s’mammal maybe a little too much to heart. Whenever we visit a new prairie, I think, ‘this looks like good pocket mouse habitat, I wonder if they have any? I wish I had my traps…’. I am also really grateful that so many mammalogists have been willing to donate their time and resources. I’ve learned a lot about species identification from them, and it’s exciting to make new connections with other institutions.

Sunrise!

Sunrise!

My pile of science. Traps generously lent out by Montana State University and Kansas State.

My pile of science. Traps generously lent out by Montana State University and Kansas State.

Pocket mouse pockets. They store seeds in there to bring back to their nest cache.

Pocket mouse pockets. They use external fur-lined cheek pouches to store seeds until they can bring them back to their nest cache.

This is not to say that this project has not had its challenges. I would say the main struggles have been setting reasonable goals (never a strong suit), keeping track of all the moving pieces (Do I have all my equipment? Am I recording all the right info? When do these traps need to be mailed back to Montana?), not losing things (Luckily the two mice than ran off with my scale clips were recaptured the next day!), and figuring out how to do the majority of the sampling by myself. It has been a long, time-intensive process for just five sampling transects. And, the project has not been without its dangers. The most dangerous part of the study has definitely been cacti. You wouldn’t believe the number of cacti I’ve accidentally kneeled on, or kicked into myself! I don’t recommend it. But, when these aspects of fieldwork start to get me down, I remind myself that I caught a weasel, and that’s pretty freaking cool.

Realistic Motion Photography (Of Cute Fuzzy Mice)

You may remember a previous post in which I described a project to evaluate the impact of our prairie restoration work on small mammals.  Mike Schrad, a Nebraska Master Naturalist, is helping us collect some pilot data to see whether small mammal species in our remnant prairies are also using the adjacent restored prairies.  Mike is now in his second season of that project, and last week he had a great start to this collecting season.  Among other species, he caught a number of grasshopper mice and plains pocket mice in some upland sandy areas of our Platte River Prairies.

There will be more to come on those mouse species and the significance of finding them (especially the plains pocket mouse, which is a Tier 1 species (high conservation priority) in the Nebraska Natural Legacy Plan).  Today, though, I wanted to share some distinctive photographs of the two species.  I hope it will be immediately clear that I’m experimenting with an exciting new style of wildlife photography – one that represents a more realistic view of how people generally see wildlife.

This might be my favorite photograph of the batch.  Note how easily you can see the smudge of light-colored fur beneath the blurry ear, and the indistinct yellowish streak along the body.  Along with size, those are the distinctive characters that best separate these pocket mice from other species.

This might be my favorite photograph of the batch. Note how easily you can see the smudge of light-colored fur beneath the blurry ear, and the indistinct yellowish streak along the body. Along with size, those are the characters that best separate pocket mice from other species.

After getting a couple of dry and boring documentary photos of a plains pocket mouse in Mike’s hand, we put one into a cardboard box in order to get something a little different.  It worked so well, we repeated the process with a grasshopper mouse.  I’m sure you’ll agree that these photographs portray these little creatures as we typically see them in the wild, unlike many of the photos you see in so-called “wildlife magazines” and “nature websites”.   Those tack-sharp photographs of animals sitting perfectly still and displaying their most charismatic features and poses in beautiful light are completely unrealistic.  Who wants to look at them?  Exactly.  What’s much more useful are photographs that show these creatures just as you might see them while hiking – a quick blur of fur zipping from one bit of cover to the next.

Here's a great shot of the long blurry tail pocket mice are known for.  Note how pink it is as it streaks past...

Here’s a great shot of the long blurry tail pocket mice are known for. Note how pink it is as it streaks past…

Here's an even better shot of the tail, without any of the distractions of the mouse's body itself.  This is how I often see mice in the field (except for the cardboard box, of course).

Here’s an even better shot of the tail, without any of the distractions of the mouse’s body itself. This is how I often see mice in the field (except for the cardboard box, of course).

When we put the grasshopper mouse in the box, I experimented with providing a more natural background of dried grasses.  I'm not sure yet if I like the effect.  It almost seems like it distracts from the subject...

When we put the grasshopper mouse in the box, I experimented with providing a more natural background of dried grasses. I’m not sure yet if I like the effect. It almost seems like it distracts from the subject…

Note the larger size, fuzzier (and shorter) tail, and grayer fur of this grasshopper mouse as it streaks past.

Note the larger size, fuzzier (and shorter) tail, and grayer fur of this grasshopper mouse as it zips past.

This one came out almost too sharp to be useful, but it does show the pointy nose that helps distinguish the grasshopper mice from other species.

This image highlights the pointy nose that helps distinguish the grasshopper mice from other species.

Some people will probably see these photos and think I’m just concocting wild justifications to cover my inability to take good sharp photographs of these little mice.  Those people obviously have no imagination or appreciation for the field of realistic motion photography, which I am currently developing and describing.  They will probably also not be among those who flock to buy my forthcoming field guide to wildflowers, entitled “Roadside Wildflowers at 60 Miles Per Hour”, in which each wildflower species is represented by a blurry streak of color that shows how it actually looks as you drive by on the highway.  I feel sorry for those people.

On the other hand, to you readers who appreciate my pioneering work, thank you for your support, and I hope that you’ve enjoyed my first attempt in this new medium.  Be assured that I’ll take many more similar photographs in the future, and will probably share some of the blurriest – and thus most useful – with you.