Zoo and university use radar to map prairie dog burrows

An encounter between Ashley Byun, Fairfield University’s associate professor of biology with a doctorate degree, and Brian Jones, a state archaeologist with a doctorate, at a recent TEDx event in Danbury spurred the idea for using radar to map the complicated maze of burrows that is home to two Black-Tailed prairie dog colonies at the Beardsley Zoo in Bridgeport.

Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) mapping equipment was taken to the zoo by Jones, according to a Nov. 20 press release from the zoo. David Colbert, program and public information coordinator for the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History, and Debbie Surabian, state soil scientist with the United States Department of Agriculture, assisted in the work. The team was joined by Scott Brady, with the Friends of the Office of State Archaeology, and Jim Knox, curator of education for the zoo, along with Linda Tomas, zoo registrar, and animal care specialists Greg Westman and J.T. Warner.

Rope lines and colored flags identified a path for the radar equipment to follow, corresponding to careful measurements of the burrows beneath the ground. The GPR equipment was guided over the uneven terrain on a wheeled cart.

“We’ve been tracking the prairie dog colony for three years now,” said Byun. “We’ve tried a lot of different ways to figure out the different burrow connections and the population dynamics in the colony.” Byun explained that a side view of the burrows would be available immediately, but the data would be uploaded into a program to provide 3-D images for closer study. A previous study by Fairfield U students resulted in identifying the cause of periodic aggressive behavior by the prairie dogs, caused by the existence of two separate colonies living side by side in the exhibit.

“This is an exciting opportunity to combine natural history and archaeology in a way I’ve never experienced before,” said Colbert. “Working to find prairie dog tunnels is a new use of this technology.”

Zoo Director Gregg Dancho said the zoo benefited greatly from the radar study. “Collaborations between our zoo and institutions of higher learning and state agencies add to our understandings of our natural world.”

Izabela Horzempa, a biology research student at Fairfield U, is a sophomore who has worked with the prairie dog exhibit for the past six months. She said she was led to the research opportunity by information provided by previous research students Megan Kirkpatrick and Sean Thomas, who studied the colony for the past three years. “We’ve never had the opportunity to study so many prairie dogs in one space, with two different groups in one enclosure,” Horzempa said. “I wanted to learn more about their behavior and how they interact.”

The zoo’s prairie dogs dig burrows leading to a complex network of tunnels with multiple openings. The tunnels contain separate rooms for sleeping, rearing young, storing food and eliminating waste, even burying their dead. Prairie dogs have an intricate social system, and live in closely-knit family groups, usually containing an adult male, one or more adult females and their young offspring. They are considered a “keystone” species, as their colonies create habitats that benefit 150 different species. Eradication programs have been underway for years in the West, although experts have concluded that prairie dog colonies eat only seven percent of a ranch’s forage. The population has been devastated by disease, poisoning, recreational shooting and habitat destruction. Today they inhabit only about two percent of their former range.

Fairfield U’s behavior observation program at the zoo began as an outgrowth of the university’s Service Learning course, designed to help students gain experience in an academic field while providing community service. Traditionally, the course has focused on helping children, for example, instead of animals. “It was unusual to think of Service Learning as extending to the animal community,” explained Byun. “But community includes everything, because we share the world with animals. (Like people), we have animals that have been excluded or marginalized by habitat loss.”

Byun suggested that we think of zoos as a kind of an ark. “The role of zoos today is very different because there is nowhere else for these animals to go,” she continued.  “For declining animal populations, it’s not realistic to try to increase their numbers in the wild, because there’s not enough habitat to support them.”

To learn more visit beardsleyzoo.org.