Senior Spotlight: Passion for big cats takes Liz Downling from the Bronx to the Rockies

Originally published in The Coloradoan on May 12, 2014 - click here to read the full special insert highlighting CSU graduates.

As a child, Elizabeth Dowling grew up close to the Bronx Zoo and visited frequently, relishing the opportunity to see the big cats. The Bronx Zoo became the catalyst for her future - aiding in the effort to conserve habitat for large mammals and carnivores, especially big cats.

When it came time to choose where she would attend college, Dowling wanted two things: the best college for her major of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology; and be located in a place she had never visited. CSU’s Warner College of Natural Resources was the perfect fit.
Having never been to the West, Dowling had a bit of culture shock when she arrived in Fort Collins. But it didn’t take long for her to take full advantage of her new surroundings and soon she was backpacking, rock climbing, snowboarding, fly fishing, camping and even hiking a 14er.

Since moving to CSU, she’s had the opportunity to work with fish, bighorn sheep, black bears, mountain lions and wolves through a variety of projects and organizations. She’s helped with a study for the past two summers to determine management strategies for bear populations in Southern Colorado by trapping and radio collaring adult females as well as conducting noninvasive genetic work.

As an undergraduate, she’s accomplished great things through her research but also through her community service. One of her proudest moments at CSU involved donating enough money through Alpha Phi Omega, a community service group, to create a water system in an Ethiopian town through the Peace Corps.
Dowling says that all of her accomplishments during her undergraduate career could not have been possible without her mother’s and father’s support. She is truly grateful that they trusted her to venture to the West, into the world of natural resources, helping her dreams come true.

By Jennifer Dimas

Iconic Galápagos Blue-footed boobies’ survival threatened

Blue-footed boobies are on the decline in the Galápagos.
A new study published in Avian Conservation and Ecology indicates numbers of the iconic birds, known for their bright blue feet and propensity to burst into dance to attract mates, have fallen more than 50 percent in less than 20 years.
The drastic drop in population seems to be linked to an unexplained disappearance of sardines from the boobies’ diet.  This in turn has adult boobies electing not to breed - leading to an ongoing population decline due to lack of new chicks being born. 

Colorado State University seabird ecologist and professor Kate Huyvaert was a co-author on the study along with her former Master's advisor and colleague Dave Anderson, a professor of biology at Wake Forest and the study’s principal investigator, and master's student David Anchundia.  

Huyvaert is a professor in CSU's Dept. of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology and has s
pent years in the Galapagos researching behavioral ecology and conservation of threatened and endangered species, particularly seabirds like the booby and waved albatross. Her research also focuses on wildlife disease ecology.

Where did all the boobies go?
Scientists started noticing a strange trend at the Galápagos’ 10 or so blue-footed  booby breeding colonies in 1997. The colonies, typically home to thousands of breeding boobies and hatching chicks, were simply empty.
"Bluefoots are an iconic species in the islands so several people, including tourist guides and conservation scientists, started to note that it seemed like far fewer bluefoots were around than typical and we started to wonder what was going on," said Huyvaert.
At first, seabird ecologists thought the lack of breeding was an isolated occurrence. Environmental conditions in the wild can be variable and maybe it was just a few bad years.  However, after three years of little to no breeding activity, the research team began to worry.
In 2011, Anderson and Huyvaert received funding from the Galápagos Conservancy, Swiss Friends of Galápagos, and Galápagos Conservation Trust to begin a comprehensive survey of Blue-footed Boobies in the Galápagos. From May 2011 to June 2013, a field team monitored breeding at three to five month intervals at four of the largest blue-footed booby breeding colonies. The results of their study show little to no breeding activity and only 134 fledgling birds during the period.
“It was alarming,” Anderson said. “This was a drastic change from the 1980s and 1990s, when young blue-foots were common throughout the archipelago.”
In addition, the research team estimated a total population of approximately 6,423 Boobies in 2012, less than a third of the only other estimate, from the 1960s.

Electing not to breed
The researchers suspect a lack of sardines, a highly nutritious and easy to find source of food, is the culprit behind the birds’ nose-diving population for a number of reasons.
Previous studies conducted at booby colonies on Española show successful breeding occurs only when the birds had an almost 100 percent sardine diet. Over the course of the recent Galápagos study sardines represented less than half of the boobies’ diet.
This suggests the birds find their current, low sardine diet sufficient to live but insufficient to breed successfully.  “We think the main factor behind the decline is a scarcity of food,” Huyvaert said. “Whether that’s natural or linked to anthropogenic change, we aren’t sure.”
So now the question is, where are the sardines, said Johannah Barry, president of the Galápagos Conservancy, which provided funding for the study. “Are they being overfished? Are they leaving Galapagos waters due to climate change or other pressures?” she said. “If they are leaving what other fauna might be impacted?”
Anderson said further investigation is important now rather than later due to the fact that the boobies’ perennial lack of breeding for the better part of two decades means that young birds are not replacing old ones.  The majority of their population in the Galápagos must be nearing elderly ages where raising offspring will become hard, if not impossible.
“We have a convenient explanation that isn’t anthropogenic,” Anderson said. “But if humans are in fact contributing to this decline we need to get to the bottom of it now rather than five years down the road when you have the equivalent of 75-year old humans trying to breed.”

Huyvaert says she is also interested in whether disease is present in the population and, if so, what impact is it having. "Getting to the bottom of the food issue will be an important step we need to take before we’ll have feasible actions to increase breeding," she said.

Researcher Graeme Shannon Uses Sound to Make Unprecedented Wildlife Behavior Discoveries

New research has found that elephants are able to identify humans that pose a threat to them by distinguishing ethnicity, gender, and age from acoustic cues in human voices. Graeme Shannon, now a post-doctoral behavioral ecologist at Colorado State University’s Warner College of Natural Resources, is a joint lead author on the research and has been making international headlines for his innovative work using acoustic research methods.
Shannon and Karen McComb at the University of Sussex studied family groups of African elephants in Amboseli National Park, Kenya. They used camouflaged loudspeakers to play sound recordings of the voices of two different human ethnic groups known to them: the Maasai, who, periodically come into conflict with elephants over access to water and grazing for their cattle, and the Kamba, whose more agricultural lifestyle poses less of a threat to elephants.

The results showed that elephants were more likely to demonstrate defensive behavior, such as bunching together and investigative smelling, in response to male Maasai voices than male Kamba voices. Their behavior was also less defensive in response to voices of Maasai women and boys, indicating that elephants can use subtle acoustic cues associated with sex and age when assessing the threat posed by different human groups.

The ability to discriminate real from apparent threat, particularly in the case of human predators that differ in relatively subtle cues, has important impacts on the capability of elephants to avoid stress and danger.

“The human language is rich in acoustic cues. The ability to distinguish between Maasai and Kamba men delivering the same phrase in their own language suggests that elephants can discriminate between different languages,” said Shannon. “This sophisticated skill would have to be learned through development and gives elephants an additional advantage in serving as an effective early warning system against predators.”

In 2013, Shannon and McComb published another study using elephant vocalizations that showed African elephants can suffer from conditions similar to post-traumatic stress disorder common in combat veterans.
The study used novel playback experiments with life-like sound projections from custom-built loudspeakers to study the long-term social disruption of mass culling on elephant populations. The team played a range of elephant contact calls – low frequency vocalizations – to target family groups to simulate different levels of social threat.

African elephants that had experienced separation from family members and translocation during culling operations decades earlier performed poorly on systematic tests of their social knowledge. They failed to distinguish between callers on the basis of social familiarity or different scales of social dominance, in sharp contrast to undisturbed populations.
The study provided the first systematic evidence that elephant’s fundamental social skills and decision-making abilities may be significantly impaired by severe human disruption, such as culling and poaching. The findings highlighted the potential long-term negative consequences of acute social disruption in cognitively advanced species that live in close-knit kin-based societies, such as elephants, primates and cetaceans.
Wildlife Sound Research at CSU
Shannon has worked with elephants for more than 12 years, and came to the United States from Britain to work with a research team including CSU Professor George Wittemyer, a leading elephant conservation biologist and professor in CSU’s Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology.

“Acoustic data is an innovative and growing field for conservation research with limitless potential for new discovery,” said Wittemyer. “We are excited to have Dr. Shannon’s experience with anthropogenic noise studies at CSU.”

Shannon has worked with sound experiments since 2006 and is continuing advancements in the use of acoustic experiments in wildlife and conservation biology studies. He is part of an inter-disciplinary team in CSU’s Warner College working with the National Park Service’s Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division - who are analyzing acoustical data from parks to help inform NPS studies and management decisions. He is also taking his elephant research methods and applying them to a much smaller mammal native to Colorado – the prairie dog.

Shannon is conducting isolated sound playback experiments in remote areas with recordings of rush-hour traffic to determine how prairie dog colonies are impacted by transportation noise. Initial findings suggest that traffic sounds significantly altered prairie dog aboveground activity, foraging and vigilance behavior. While smaller and perhaps less iconic than elephants, Shannon notes that prairie dogs are highly intelligent and social species and their colony structure makes them ideal behavior research subjects.

“Sound has an extremely pervasive influence on animal behavior, and so acoustic studies have a very exciting and important opportunity to really deepen our understanding of wildlife biology and responses of these species to human disturbance,” said Shannon. “This is a field that has huge opportunity for growth and can be a powerful tool to advance natural resources management policy.”

Shannon hopes to continue his research in the U.S. and sees great potential to make new discoveries on issues such as the acoustic impacts of traffic noise on wildlife or the effects of urbanization and human activity on native rangeland species. Shannon earned his undergraduate degree at the University of York, his M.Sc. in conservation biology at University of Kent, and his Ph.D. at University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa.

Posted on April 7, 2014 by This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

CSU Scientists and Students Help Bring New Animal Exhibit to Life at Fort Collins Museum of Discovery

A new live-animal exhibit featuring 17 species of crawling, flying and swimming critters opens Tuesday, March 18 at the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery, where Colorado State University students, scientists, and faculty are chipping in as caretakers and consultants for amphibians, arthropods, fish, mammals and reptiles.

The new exhibit is meant to introduce visitors to species and their vital roles, to highlight the need for conservation, and to spark scientific curiosity, museum officials said. It features animals including Colorado native tiger salamanders, orangespotted sunfish, and Woodhouses’s toad, – as well as fascinating creepy-crawlies, including tarantulas, leopard geckos, “Dumbo” rats, honeybees, and even a ball python named “Slinky.”

Three of CSU’s eight colleges are contributing expertise to the museum’s new animal displays: the College of Agricultural Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and Warner College of Natural Resources.

In its partnership with Warner College, the Museum collaborated with graduate students in CSU’s American Fisheries Society Student Chapter on the design of new fish and amphibian displays.

The aquatic animal exhibitions feature colorful Colorado species including the tiger salamander and orangespotted sunfish, giving visitors the chance to learn about the amazing native species swimming and crawling around the state.

“Aquaria exhibits give visitors the chance to see beneath the water’s surface and learn about animals that inhabit Colorado’s watery environs,” said Jon Wardell, a grad student in CSU’s Warner College of Natural Resources. “Amphibians are in decline across the country, and many native fish are at risk due to habitat loss. We hope the aquatic displays will help educate and excite visitors about Colorado’s diverse underwater ecosystems that need to be conserved.”

Graduate students in AFS provided the museum with volunteer assistance on aquatic habitat designs tailored to each species, scientific counsel on animal and plant species selection, and also worked with Colorado Parks and Wildlife to provide native fish for the Museum’s educational displays.

“Being face-to-face with these types of creatures allows people of all ages to discover something new and to develop a profound connection with different species,” said Laura Clough, a CSU veterinary student. “It teaches them a sense of compassion for all living things that they can’t learn anywhere else.”

Veterinary students will pay regular visits to the museum to observe and care for animals as part of their training in avian, exotic and zoological medicine.

Also supporting the effort are CSU arthropod experts – people who know all about the little things in life. Things with exoskeletons, segmented bodies and jointed appendages, like millipedes, scorpions and cockroaches.

“The gorgeous arthropods featured in the exhibit are a great way to get people thinking more about bugs, which might combat some of the irrational fears people have and get them learning about the good and bad impacts that arthropods have on agricultural systems and human ecology,” said Peter Forrence, an entomology research associate in the CSU College of Agricultural Sciences.

Forrence and well-known entomology professor Whitney Cranshaw have helped develop live and preserved arthropod displays at the local science museum; they have counseled the museum about proper identification, habitat, care and educational messages.

“This collaboration is a great example of how CSU and our college can help educate the community where we live and work,” Forrence said. “Helping people understand how important insects are to our ecosystem is just one of our many goals.”

The Fort Collins Museum of Discovery, at Cherry Street and North College Avenue, is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. For more information:

In fall 2012, the museum moved to its new facility on the city’s north side. Four new exhibits are planned under the themes of science and history; the first is the live animal exhibit, Cheryl Donaldson, museum director, said.

“We are excited about the new project, and we are glad CSU is involved. Our partnership makes available so many resources for both education and animal care,” she said.

Posted on March 17, 2014 by Bryony Wardell