Fairfield biology professor Ashley Byun, PhD, and her students are mapping the complex maze of prairie dog territorial politics at the Beardsley Zoo.

Fairfield biology professor Ashley Byun, PhD, and her students are mapping the complex maze of prairie dog territorial  politics at the Beardsley Zoo.

Curious, charismatic, and chubby-cheeked, the black-tailed prairie dogs at Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo are one of the attraction’s most popular residents. But buried beneath the surface of this family-favorite exhibit lies a deep and complicated labyrinth of mystery that zoologists and biologists are just beginning to unearth.

For the past three years, Fairfield University Biology Professor Ashley Byun, PhD, has been working alongside zoo officials and students from her vertebrate zoology course to track the social rodents’ underground activities and learn as much as they can about the hidden maze of burrows that is home to the colony’s dynamic population.

“Prairie dogs have such a unique and complex social structure that we wanted to — pardon the pun — dig a little deeper into the lives of the species to better understand their day-to-day interactions,” said Beardsley Zoo Associate Curator Rob Tomas.

Enter Dr. Byun and her team of students composed of Fairfield alumni Meghan Kirkpatrick ’17, Sean Thomas ’17, and current junior Izabela Horzempa ’19. As part of the University’s service learning course RIZE (Research, Internships, and Zoo Education) held in partnership with the zoo, the students began observing the prairie dogs’ behavior over an extended period of time while brainstorming effective methods for mapping out their complicated burrow system.

“There are not as many people studying prairie dogs as you might think,” Dr. Byun said. “While there are a few studies in the wild, there are none in a zoo setting, so I often joke with our students about being the top researchers in the country to study them.”

Being a top researcher involves innovative thinking and cutting-edge technology, two tools that Dr. Byun and her students were eager to apply in their most recent study. During their research, the students began noticing that the closely-knit colony of rodents had begun expressing periodic episodes of aggressive behavior toward one another, specifically during feeding time.
When the students requested that the zookeepers create two feeding locations instead of one, they observed that the aggression started to minimize, leaving them to believe that the once cohesive colony had separated into two different coteries, now living side-by-side in the same enclosure.

“We had a hypothesis, but couldn’t prove the colony separation,” Dr. Byun explained, until an unexpected encounter with Connecticut State Archeologist Brian Jones, PhD, at a TEDx event changed the game. During his talk, Dr. Jones discussed using Ground-Penetrating Radar (GPR) in his work, a non-invasive geophysical method that uses the reflection of electromagnetic energy to produce subsurface images.

“As I sat in the audience listening, I thought, ‘why am I not using this type of technology?’” Byun recalled. Shortly thereafter, she approached Dr. Jones with her prairie dog discovery and an unprecedented partnership was formed.

In November, Dr. Jones joined Dr. Byun and Izabela Horzempa ’19 at the prairie dog exhibit, where they worked with a team of zoo officials, animal care specialists, soil scientists, and others to map out the underground burrow system using GPR and determine whether or not the students’ theory was correct.

After placing a series of rope lines and colored flags throughout the enclosure to identify a radar path that corresponded to careful measurements of the burrows below, the GPR equipment was guided over the terrain on a wheeled cart to take images of the subsurface nearly 190 centimeters deep. Once the 3-D images were ready, it was up to Horzempa and Dr. Byun to interpret the results, a process that would soon prove their hypothesis correct.

The GPR captured two independent tunnel systems beneath the enclosure’s surface. On the north end, it showed a massive chamber system composed of dozens of intertwining burrows, and on the south end, a much smaller system separated by what Byun calls a “neutral zone,” or an untouched section of soil where neither colony had dug.

“In an area where real estate is so limited, you would think the prairie dogs would maximize as much space as they could,” Byun said. “Instead, there is a dead zone completely separating the two colonies. In other words, there’s a lot of drama going on in this enclosure that no one really knew was happening.”

But thanks to her students’ observational research, they at least had a theory that something unusual was afoot – a hypothesis that was finally confirmed after months of intense study.

“In my opinion, the more important finding here was confirmation of what the students have been working so hard on over the past semesters,” Tomas said. “Because of the limited time our staff has during the course of the day, the results the students found have helped us modify our animal husbandry to enhance animal welfare and behavior.”

Fairfield University’s participation in the zoo’s behavioral observation program began as an extension of the University’s service learning course, a program designed to help students gain experience in an academic field while providing community service. Traditionally, the course focuses on helping human communities, but Dr. Byun advocated extending the program to also benefit the animal world.

“My perspective is that these courses should benefit any community that is being marginalized or exploited, and animals fit that model perfectly, especially in terms of conservation,” she said. “People often think of zoos as a form of entertainment, but their role is different today. Oftentimes, they are the last place for a species to go when their natural habitat can no longer support them.”

While Tomas and other zoo officials continue to be impressed with the high quality results that the University’s undergraduate students have provided in such a short period of time, Dr. Byun insists that their prairie dog research has just begun.

“This is a very dynamic colony,” Dr. Byun said. “Some burrows have existed for three years. Others open up and get deactivated within weeks, and we don’t know why. There are so many questions that we don’t have the answers to, like ‘Is that second coterie going to get destroyed?’ ‘What happens if one of the colonies reproduces and they need to expand?’ ‘Will they ultimately become one colony again?’ The best thing about research and science is the more you know, the more questions you have.”
Questions that both she and her students are eager to “dig into” in the months to come.

For wildlife biologists like Fairfield University Biology Professor Brian G. Walker, PhD, Argentina is a mecca for scientific research and discovery. Every September, the Atlantic coast of Punto Tombo transforms into a sea of black and white as more than half a million Magellanic penguins descend upon the peninsula for breeding season.

Meanwhile in Argentina, Penguins and People

For the better part of 20 years, Dr. Walker has dedicated his research to measuring the effects of ecotourism on penguin populations. His previous studies found that newly hatched chicks living in areas visited by tourists exhibit an adult-like expression of the glucocorticoid hormone, an extremely high physiological stress response, immediately after hatching.

“Typically, an increase in glucocorticoid hormones during stress is beneficial because it allows animals to regulate energy acquisition in order to escape from or outlast the stressor,” Dr. Walker explained. “However, in animals that cannot escape from stressors (i.e., newly-hatched chicks), glucocorticoids become chronically elevated, potentially leading to detrimental consequences, such as decreased cognitive abilities, modified stress response capability, and/or altered sexual activities.”

This past October, Dr. Walker returned to Punta Tombo on a four-month research trip to attempt to understand how this reaction happens and to determine what mechanism might be causing the high stress response so early in tourist-exposed chicks.

“If you move a tourist-exposed egg to a non-disturbed area, and the chick hatches with a high stress response, that indicates the mom had something to do with it,” Dr. Walker explained. “However, if you move a non-disturbed egg to a tourist area, and that chick hatches with a high stress response, that means something happened during the incubation process.”

Dr. Walker won’t know the actual results of the study until his laboratory analysis is completed in March.

“My prediction is that the mom has a part in this, rather than something that happens while she sits on the egg,” he said. “If our preliminary results indicate that mom is the culprit, then the next steps will be to determine just what mom is doing. There are some really interesting potential mechanisms, so teasing that out will be the next step.”