Kate Thibault

URL: http://www.neoninc.org/about/staff/kate-thibault

Biography

Kate Thibault earned her B.S. in Biology at Boston College and her Ph.D. at the University of New Mexico. Her dissertation research focused on the temporal dynamics in the structure and function of the desert rodent community at the LTREB site near Portal, AZ. Concurrently, she also conducted extensive field research on bats throughout the public lands of New Mexico. She came to NEON from Utah State University, where she was a postdoctoral fellow in macroecology. Kate is interested in understanding the mechanisms underlying community assembly across space and time and, therefore, biodiversity and dynamics in this changing world. She uses a combination of field techniques and ecoinformatics to this end. Her field experience has encompassed rodents, bats, and cougars, primarily in the southwestern U.S., and her informatics experience has involved such databases as the Breeding Bird Survey and Forest Inventory Analysis, as well as leading an effort to create the first mammal community database.

Latest posts

  1. Counting birds in the cold, for 111 years and counting — January 25, 2012
  2. How is a deer mouse like a grad student? — October 3, 2011
  3. A passion for rats: stepping into the role of NEON Mammal Ecologist — August 8, 2011

Most commented posts

  1. A passion for rats: stepping into the role of NEON Mammal Ecologist — 1 comment
  2. Counting birds in the cold, for 111 years and counting — 1 comment

Author's posts listings

Counting birds in the cold, for 111 years and counting

“Backyard Birds Open a Window on Science”: A recent centerfold in BirdScope magazine celebrates Project FeederWatch. View the full version (and download the poster version) here. Poster designed by Diane Tessaglia-Hymes and Joanne Avila; Illustrations by Larry McQueen, Evaristo Hérnandez-Férnandez; and Evan Barbour.

On a frosty weekend morning in December, I headed out the door before the crack of dawn to count birds for the day. Some of you might think that choosing to hang outside in freezing winter weather all day and NOT skiing is a good indication of eccentricity or the affliction of being an ecologist. But you must believe me when I tell you that I was not driven by any behavioral or professional abnormality to count birds on that day. This winter, I was one of not tens, not even thousands, but tens of thousands of people (people who love the birds – amateurs and pros alike) who participated in the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count throughout North America.

So now maybe you think that all the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is turning people into crazy birders. But, in fact the CBC began in 1900, back when carbon dioxide was well below 300 parts per million.

Chickadees. From 'American Birds' (1908). Photo by William Lovell Finley/Courtesy OSU Archives

Chickadees. From ‘American Birds’ (1908). Photo by William Lovell Finley/Courtesy OSU Archives.

The story goes that, back in the olden times (technically referred to as the 19th century), Christmas was celebrated by many with a hearth-warming game of ‘who can shoot the most endotherms (i.e., birds and mammals)?’ At the turn of the last century, however, conservation efforts were on the rise, due in part to the precipitous decline of many species. The year 1900 is not only the year the CBC began; it also marks the passage of the Lacey Act, the ‘first far-reaching federal wildlife protection law’ in the US. passed during Republican William McKinley’s administration). The founder of the CBC, Frank M. Chapman, lived through the catastrophic decline of both the passenger pigeon and the American bison. It is hard to conceive of such a dramatic change in the ecological landscape that resulted from the loss of these highly visible species.

In that context, Frank Chapman initiated a large effort to establish long-term monitoring of birds throughout North America on the same day each year. An obstacle to accomplishing this ambitious goal was, of course, the limited availability of person-hours of knowledgeable observers. At that time, the number of professional naturalists was extremely limited (many would argue that it still is). The only federally-employed naturalists were affiliated with the National Biological Survey’s Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy, which had been established only in 1886.

Fortunately, birds are beautiful, relatively easy to see, especially with the aid of low-tech binoculars, often sing using species-specific songs, and are active during the day (when people also tend to be active). Because of this powerful combination of traits, there were then, as there are today, folks who were not employed as naturalists but who dedicated much of their free time to learning how to identify birds by sight and song. Although we refer to these dedicated people as amateurs, this term is no indication of knowledge and ability; it means only that they aren’t paid for their many hours of hard work.

In 1900, Chapman was able to garner the efforts of 27 volunteers to count birds on Christmas Day at 25 sites throughout the US and Canada. This year, as I mentioned above, tens of thousands people counted birds in a standardized way for one day during the official count period (Dec 14 – Jan 05) at over at more than 2000 sites throughout North and South America (see map here). These efforts, as with other citizen science projects, provide vastly more valuable data for scientists and policy makers to use to understand the status of bird populations than would otherwise be feasible for the professionals to collect. Ornithologists are particularly fortunate in this regard, since the sheer quantity of amateur birders throughout the world allows for a good number of bird-related citizen science efforts, including eBird, the Breeding Bird Survey, the Great Backyard Bird Count, and Project FeederWatch to name a few.

But enough about history and the great work that millions of dedicated birders do for the world. Let’s get back to me. Although I was whining earlier about braving the cold for the sake of the birds, I and my fellow birders conducting the count for the Boulder, CO, count circle (each CBC site is actually a circle with a 15 mile diameter) were ultimately treated to a beautiful sunny day with a high in the mid-50s (degrees Fahrenheit). Each CBC count circle is surveyed for as much of a day by as many people as are willing. In populated areas with good road access throughout the circle, many people count the area intensively – for example, in Boulder, over 100 observers tallied 112 species on count day. My team of 4, led by fellow biologist Pete Plage, spent a full 12 hours combing an area of about 2 x 4 miles, and counted 43 of these species. I think it’s pretty cool that that many species can be seen in one small suburban area over the course of one day in the middle of winter, and in an area with a surprisingly low density of backyard feeders.

The Eurasian Collared Dove, Streptopelia decaocto, an invasive species that appears to be on the rise in Boulder. Photo by Shanthanu Bhardwaj.

The Eurasian Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto), an invasive species that appears to be on the rise in Boulder. Photo by Shanthanu Bhardwaj. Creative Commons License CC BY-SA 2.0

Although my favorite part of the day was the pair of Great Horned Owls sitting close to one another nestled in a bushy conifer (or was it the white-breasted nuthatch?), the most notable result from my team’s endeavors was the highest count of Eurasian Collared Doves for the Boulder count area. This species is considered an invasive species, because it was introduced to the Bahamas in the 1970s, spread to Florida in the 1980s, and then began spreading rapidly throughout North America since the 1990s. The Eurasian Collared Dove has only been seen in the last five counts in this area, and its population in Boulder seems to be on the rise. This result highlights one of the many significant contributions to science that citizen science projects make. The contributions that have been made because of citizen science and the as yet untapped potential of these information are too numerous to enumerate here. But it could be a good topic for another blog post…

Permanent link to this article: http://www.neonnotes.org/2012/01/counting-birds-in-the-cold-for-111-years-and-counting/

How is a deer mouse like a grad student?

The majestic, 500-pound lion lazing in the grass awaiting its next meal (provided generously by the females in his pride). The surprising, 20-foot-tall giraffe grabbing leaves with its foot-and-a-half-long tongue. The bizarre bouncing deer with a pouch, the kangaroo. These charismatic megafauna can’t help but inspire awe and curiosity in most people. As a scientist that studies wild mammals, I too revel in the incredible diversity and occasional absurdity of these critters.

A North American deer mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus) ready for anything. Photo by David Cappaert, Michigan State University, Budwood.org

A North American deer mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus) ready for anything.Photo by David Cappaert, Michigan State University, Budwood.org.

But I see these species as ‘gateway species’they get people who might otherwise not be so inclined to get hooked on the natural world. And once people are hooked, you can introduce them to the real, hard-core mammals—the ones that are small, extremely abundant, and easy to overlook. These characteristics imbue these species with a scientist’s favorite trait in a mammal—easy to study (relatively anyway—I realize not everyone finds hauling traps into remote places or poking and prodding individuals in a laboratory easy). Because of this relative ease of study, we learn a lot from these species—most of our knowledge about mammals really comes from these not-as-charismatic minifauna. In North America, the hardest-core mammal is definitely the North American deer mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus)—a focal species of NEON small mammal work.

The deer mouse is the most widespread rodent in North America. It occurs across most of the continent, with the exception of much of Alaska, northern Canada, western and southeastern Mexico, and the southeastern U.S. There are about 14 other similar, closely related species (in the same genus) in North America, but none of these have reached the level of fame and fortune as the North American deer mouse.

The incredible geographic distribution of the deer mouse. From Digital Distribution Maps of the Mammals of the Western Hemisphere, by NatureServe, Arlington, Virginia, US

The incredible geographic distribution of the deer mouse. From Digital Distribution Maps of the Mammals of the Western Hemisphere, by NatureServe, Arlington, Virginia, USA. Data provided by NatureServe in collaboration with Bruce Patterson, Wes Sechrest, Marcelo Tognelli, Gerardo Ceballos, The Nature Conservancy-Migratory Bird Program, Conservation International-CABS, World Wildlife Fund-US, and Environment Canada-WILDSPACE.

This species has such a ginormous geographic range because it can pretty much eat anything and live anywhere. It eats everything from seeds to bugs to fungi, and occurs in virtually any and every habitat available throughout this range, from desert to boreal forest. It can also have up to 8 adorable pups in a litter, and, in the laboratory where food is cheap, it can have up to 14 litters a year and live for 8 years. Finally, it is an extremely variable beast, on the inside and out. For example, its fur can be any shade of brown or, if it lives in lava fields, it can be black as night. When it’s cold outside, deer mice just build a bigger and better nest and invite a handful of friends over for some snuggling.

As our parents taught us, there are many downsides to an ‘anything goes’ lifestyle. From our perspective, the biggest downside to the incredible flexibility of the deer mouse is its fondness for sharing our homes with us, particularly for those that live in rural areas. If you have a really cute, big-eared mouse eating your oatmeal, building nests with your paper towels, and pooping under your sink, it is probably a deer mouse. The good news is that one of the reasons we scientists love the deer mouse is good for everyone—they love free food in a trap just as much as a grad student loves free pizza.

A young deer mouse demonstrating its agility, its distinguishing light grey fur, and its general cute-itude. Photo by The Real Estreya on Flickr

A young deer mouse demonstrating its agility, its distinguishing light grey fur, and its general cute-itude. Photo by The Real Estreya.

Because it occurs in a lot of places and often in abundance, the deer mouse is a major prey species for a lot of medium-sized carnivores—foxes, skunks, and weasels, to name a few. Although this is unfortunate for the individuals that become prey, this is great service for biodiversity in general. For the same reasons, the deer mouse is also a perfect vehicle for infectious diseases—namely hantavirus, plague, and Lyme disease – which makes understanding the population dynamics of this species important for public health. Don’t panic—these diseases are often treatable and, you are, of course, much more likely to die in your car or even by a lawn mower. Just be safe—follow the CDC guidelines for safe clean-up of the things deer mice leave behind.

Now you know more about the most common species in your backyard and most of North America than most people do. If you keep following NEON, we will learn even more about this very important critter together, and come to appreciate that there is much more to life than charismatic megafauna.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.neonnotes.org/2011/10/how-is-a-deer-mouse-like-a-grad-student/

A passion for rats: stepping into the role of NEON Mammal Ecologist

I love rats. Not the big, slimy ones that live in the sewers or stow away on ships and then wreak havoc on pristine island ecosystems. I mean all of the other small mammals that inhabit the wild areas of the planet. These are the mammals that you can typically only see by throwing on an old set of field clothes, driving down a dusty dirt road, and hauling a box of heavy traps into the middle of nowhere. I recently brought my passion for rats to NEON, where I am the Mammal Ecologist, charged with the challenging task of designing the research plan for studying rats and other small mammals at NEON sites.

Silky pocket mouse, Perognathus flavus. This species is found in deserts of western North America where it makes its living collecting seeds from the dirt, stuffing them into their fur-lined, external cheek pouches, and storing them in an underground burrow. Photo: G. Yenni
Silky pocket mouse, Perognathus flavus. This species is found in deserts of western North America where it makes its living collecting seeds from the dirt, stuffing them into their fur-lined, external cheek pouches, and storing them in an underground burrow. Photo: G. Yenni

Please understand that small mammals are not all disease-ridden with beady red eyes (although even the disease-ridden ones do also have their charms). Some of them are among the most lovable critters around – like the silky pocket mouse pictured to the right. This species weighs in at only about 8 grams (that’s about 3 pennies), with a body length (without the tail) of less than 2 inches (50 mm), and, yes, the fur is soft and silky to the touch.

Mammalogists –  scientists that study mammals –typically use the term ‘small mammal’ to refer to an extremely large and diverse group of mammals that includes rodents (all species in the Order Rodentia, including rats, mice, and squirrels), shrews, moles, and rabbits (including pikas). See the Smithsonian’s fantastic website Mammals of North America for more info about these groups and to find out which species occur in your area.  Of these, rodents and some shrews are relatively easily captured in the field using simple live box traps, like the one pictured below. The combination of their often high population densities, relative ease of capture and handling, and unparalleled charisma (again, see silky pocket mouse) has led to hundreds of studies of small mammals over the last century. These studies have shown that their populations can be linked to land use and climate change. So, they can be good indicator species in ecological studies, and, unfortunately, they are also carriers of diseases important to public health. Consequently, small mammals have been selected as one of NEON’s sentinel taxa (see this previous post for more information on the selection of sentinel taxa).

The goal of the small mammal work at NEON is to illuminate the drivers (e.g., climate, land-use, plant productivity, insect abundance) of two aspects of rodent ecology to ultimately enable ecological forecasting. One is the demography and disease prevalence of deer mice, rodents in the genus Peromyscus that, despite their serious cuteness, are known to carry the infectious agents that cause hantavirus and Lyme disease. The other aspect of interest is the biodiversity of small mammal communities.

Key Largo Woodrat (Neotoma floridana smalli) in an H.B. Sherman trap used for capturing small mammals. These traps are set on the ground or in trees and baited with seeds, peanut butter, and/or oatmeal. Small mammals that get lured into the trap in search of more tasty treats set off a spring-loaded mechanism that closes the door behind them. In cold weather, the rodents also find cotton for making a warm bed to sleep in after their nice meal. Photo: Clayton Degayner

Key Largo Woodrat (Neotoma floridana smalli) in an H.B. Sherman trap used for capturing small mammals. These traps are set on the ground or in trees and baited with seeds, peanut butter, and/or oatmeal. Small mammals that get lured into the trap in search of more tasty treats set off a spring-loaded mechanism that closes the door behind them. In cold weather, the rodents also find cotton for making a warm bed to sleep in after their nice meal. Photo: Clayton Degayner

To help me along the way, I have access to many invaluable resources, including my own training in long-term studies in mammalogy. For a significant portion of my training, I worked with a very diverse small mammal community in southeastern Arizona (21 species!). My work was part of a long-term study of the community dynamics of small mammals, known as the Portal Project and started in 1977 by Dr. James H. Brown. Through this study, we have learned much about this community and its impacts on the surrounding plant and ant communities, including how long-term land use changes (e.g., grazing and desertification) and climate dynamics (such as those driven by the Pacific Decadal Oscillation) affect the population densities of small mammals. It is long-term studies such as this that we hope to model and build upon through the efforts of NEON. In addition to my experience at Portal, I intend to use the decades of other important research and the wealth of knowledge contained within the community of scientists at large, along with my passion for rats, to help me to build an excellent mammal program for NEON.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.neonnotes.org/2011/08/a-passion-for-rats-stepping-into-the-role-of-neon-mammal-ecologist/