• Group of raccoons (Procyon lotor) waiting at a car mid-day. Photo by Zachary Hawn

Research in the Schell Lab takes an integrative approach – combining behavioral assays, with endocrine analyses, genomic investigations, and community science – to determine whether mammalian carnivores are adapting to urban environments. In so doing, we see if carnivore adaptation hinders or facilitates the success of human-wildlife relations in metropolitan areas. Members of the lab work across disciplines, institutions, government, and the public to address the complex interactions that exist among wildlife and people.

The Schell Lab is the shared home of the Grit City Carnivore Project (GCCP) – a long-term research partnership that includes Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, Northwest Trek, and Metro Parks Tacoma. It is through this partnership that we use an interdisciplinary approach to study aspects of carnivore ecology and evolution. It is also through our research collective that we are able to involve our community in and around Pierce County in meaningful and engaging scholarship. Urban ecology is equally as much about the people that live in the cities we study as it is about the wildlife. As a result, members of the GCCP on the whole seek to invite community members in the data collection and dissemination process, while incorporating cultural and historical knowledge from our community, to then inform best practices in science and inspire the next generation of STEM students.

 

What socio-economic factors influence carnivore occurrence, abundance, and richness in cities?

Cities are inherently disparate: human resources are not evenly distributed across an urban landscape. This disparity often has top-down effects on the way a city is built (i.e. infrastructure), and how neighborhoods exist (i.e. function) over time, not to mention that the developmental age and history of urban remnant patches can vary greatly across a city. The combination of these factors can dramatically influence how species navigate the urban landscape, which ultimately can facilitate more human-wildlife interactions – and in some instances, conflict. For all these reasons, understanding the past, present, and future of human systems within a city can help us uncover how anthropogenic drivers influence species richness in urban environments. For this research arm of the GCCP, we use motion-triggered cameras strategically placed along an urbanization gradient to determine how particular socio-economic factors (e.g. wealth, food systems, anthropogenic light) predict the presence of carnivores in the Pacific Northwest. At a broader level, the design and implementation of the proposed study is positioned under the research collective known as the Urban Wildlife Information Network (UWIN), a wildlife biomonitoring initiative aimed at describing urban wildlife patterns across a large network of major U.S. cities. UWIN was established under the leadership of Dr. Seth Magle and the Lincoln Park Zoo to conduct the science needed to ensure that humans and wildlife can co-exist in urban areas, and that cities can contribute to biodiversity conservation around the world.

How do anthropogenic resources influence phenotypic variation in coyotes and raccoons?

Photo by Rob Raker

Both natural and artificial resources are more abundant and more consistent in cities. Indeed, research within the last decade illustrates how food supplementation can affect species densities, alter predator-prey relationships, dampen competitive interactions, exaggerate reproductive output, and fundamentally alter life history traits in an array of vertebrate taxa. This is particularly the case for species with more generalist diets that are able to capitalize on non-traditional, anthropogenic resources such as food waste, refuse, and intentional feeding (e.g., bird feeders, hand feeding, etc.). In this arm of the GCCP, we ask whether such food supplementation has the potential to alter the behavior and endocrine function of mesocarnivore generalists, specifically coyotes and raccoons. To research this question, we use an integrative approach (i.e., GPS radiocollars, fecal and hair samples for hormone analyses) to investigate whether variance in diet corresponds with commonly observed phenotypic shifts as a result of urbanization.
 

Are urban carnivores adapting to cities?

Mesocarnivores are remarkably successful at persisting and thriving in metropolitan areas across the globe, especially in the North American continent. However, is this success actually adaptive (i.e., linked to genetic change) or merely flexible (i.e., plastic). We may expect that individuals within cities experience novel selection pressures not observed by their conspecifics in more rural or natural environments. Hence, do these differences in anthropogenic selection pressures induce urban evolution? The third arm of the GCCP is to determine how and why mesocarnivores are evolving in cities. To do this, we combine roadkill and carcass collections, with tissue sampling from live individuals, to understand population genetic structure across the Pacific Northwest.
 

What are the implications for urban evolution on wildlife management in cities?
If wildlife populations are indeed changing rapidly to adapt to the myriad anthropogenic pressures they are faced with, it stands to reason that the way in which we manage them may also change. In addition, the type and intensity of interactions may change as wildlife populations become more prevalent, and more habituated, to people. This phenomenon is common in urban environments across the globe, and conflict amongst people and wildlife often occurs. Hence, disentangling the mechanisms that contribute to urban evolution may serve to mitigate conflict before it occurs. With our community science initiatives, primarily through efforts such as iNaturalist, we hope to serve as a resource for wildlife managers in cities.

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