For my undergraduate dissertation I chose to investigate how features of urban environments are affecting the distribution of wild hedgehogs, titled "The Importance of Habitat and Connectivity Characteristics.Affecting the Presence of Hedgehogs (Erinaceus europaeus) in Urban Gardens"
British hedgehogs have had it tough in recent years, their numbers having fallen by about 50% since the turn of the century. Many studies have shown this to be due to habitat fragmentation caused by urban development - physical barriers isolate small populations and cause a reduction in reproductive success, as well as more individuals being killed on the roads that they are forced to cross in search of food.
I wanted to investigate this further and find out if there were any characteristics in particular responsible for the demise of the hedgehog.
I spent 3 months gathering data in Reading, England. This involved carrying out door-to-door surveys to ask residents about the presence of hedgehogs in their gardens and their willingness to make them more-hedgehog friendly, as well as using footprint tunnels and going out at night to capture and release hedgehogs to fit tracking devices and record weights, sexes and health. The twenty-four habitat and connectivity characteristics I investigated included; garden terrain, the use of pesticides, distance to nearest woodland and the presence of log piles, ponds and dogs.
The results of the investigation suggested that inter-garden connectivity characteristics are more important to hedgehogs than garden habitat characteristics.
To put it simply, if we are able to encourage more people to cut holes in their fences, the hedgehogs are likely to stand a better chance of survival!
South African Fauna
As part of a university field trip, I spent two week at a leopard reserve in the mountains of Limpopo, South Africa.
While there, I had the opportunity to partake in an ongoing study on the leopard population. We tracked their spoor and scat, and used camera trap technology to monitor their activity in the reserve. We even caught a glimpse of the elusive and super-rare strawberry leopard on our camera traps, of which there are only a handful of individuals in the world!
However the purpose of the trip wasn't solely to study leopards, I also learnt a great deal about the other species of South African mammals and birds, and carried out a mini-investigation titled "Will There Be A Difference In Mammal Diversity Identified By Spoor And Scat Between Roads And Game Trails?"
The results from this investigation could be useful for many different purposes. For example, if there is a difference if mammal diversity on roads and game trails, then this information would be useful for future game reserve design, such as road management - i.e. if fewer mammals use roads than game trails, it would suggest that human disturbance is a major factor and would also mean roads should be positioned in a game reserve in a certain way to minimise disturbance levels.
Unfortunately there was found to be likely no significant difference between the two trails. However, since this was just a small study, I think it would be very interesting to repeat the experiment with a much larger sample size.
Social Structures in Western Lowland Gorillas
During a Captive Animal Management course at the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, I conducted an investigation into the social structure of the zoo's western lowland gorilla population. I was particularly interested in the juvenile's interactions with the adult members.
I spent over ten hours observing the gorillas and recording how long the juvenile spent on his own, interacting with others, and the type of interactions. I then compared my results with the results of similar investigations of wild gorilla populations, in the hope of finding out if captivity has had an effect of the juvenile's development. Although my study was relatively small, it did look as though captivity had slowed his development.
Infant riding for example is a behaviour that usually only occurs in wild gorillas between the ages of four months to three years, however our juvenile displayed this behaviour at four years of age. Other behaviours that indicated captivity having an effect on development included nursing, boredom and coprophagy (which is not a normal behaviour in wild gorillas).
Carrying out a similar study using a much larger sample size could have interesting results, and could perhaps prove to be useful in ensuring a high standard of welfare in captive animals.