Just a Biology Major


I knew I wanted to be involved with biology long before I knew the technical names of anything. Before I knew the branches of science, the fundamentals of chemistry, or what made up our very cells.


I was in elementary school - second or third grade - when I became obsessed with werewolves for Halloween. Every movie, book, and Goosebumps episode that mentioned werewolves was mine for the taking. The obsession drifted to wolves in general. When I started thinking about college and my career, I began with keeping my focus on wolves, but there was many other animals that deserved attention.


While wolves still hold the crown as my favorite North American mammal, my focus today leans more towards ecology - how different species interact with each other and their environment. As it entails a complicated web of predators, prey, detritivores, plants, fungi, and more, it is impossible to solely focus on one or even just two animals. There is an entire world out there to learn about.

Duck banding with the DNR at Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge.


Minnesota in general is a great place to learn about wildlife, with a robust whitetail population, plenty of fishing spots, and bobcats, bear, moose, and wolves in the north woods. I decided to go to college in Bemidji because it was far outside the concrete walls of the Twin Cities. Everything I wanted to study was there in the backyard. And I wasn't disappointed. The city of Bemidji sits on the edge of three different land biomes - prairie, deciduous forests, and coniferous forests (with lots of protected wetlands and bogs). They also have a fantastic wildlife program with dedicated professors and lots of hands-on internship and volunteer opportunities for students (I'd go on, but the school would have to pay me for the advertising!).


The very first thing I participated in was Deer Spotlight Surveys. Every fall before the deer season, students drive in a University marked vehicle along designated roads at dusk when deer are most active. We used spotlights. which reflected off the deer eyes. The driver would stop, the deer would be counted, sexed, aged, and their distance from the transect (road) would be measured. The data would later be compiled into computer programs to give us estimates on population trends, which would then be used to set bag limits for hunting seasons.


In that same fall, I also volunteered at a duck banding event at Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge. DNR agents netted a flock of ducks, and the volunteers would carry each one to the necessary stations to be banded, aged, and sexed. Just like with the deer, the information was used to understand how many young survived to maturity from the last breeding season, and the effects of the upcoming duck hunt on the population. Information like the ratio of males to females or juveniles to adults gives lots of information on what the population is 'doing'. For example, a majority of males born in a breeding season means less reproductive productivity (less ducklings born) in the next breeding season. Ducks like mallards are seasonally monogamous, means they will breed with and defend one female per year. A population is most reproducitvely active if the male to female ratio is 1:1. More males to females means the males are going to spend more time competing/fighting each other, and some won't get to breed at all. For polygamous breeds like prairie chickens that guard harems of females, it is most breeding productivity involves a population ratio of more females than males.


Not a photo of me, but this came from a news website talking about CWD testing. This looks like what I was doing.


We work with deer a lot in Minnesota, because there are plenty to go around! (Even though they're not actually suppose to be there, but that's a blog for another day). After the spotlight surveys and duck banding, I got a paid position as a sample collector for the DNR.


Chronic Wasting Disease is a serious problem currently expanding into Minnesota. It is basically a mutated protein called a prion that puts holes is a deer's brain, causing severe loss of motor function. Its a lot like Alzheimer's for deer, but instead of being put into a care home, the deer wonders around the starving. Before the prion breaks down its brain, the deer has no symptoms, during which it can spread the prion to other herds in its urine, feces, semen, blood, and saliva. Studies found the prion could survive a long time in the soil. The prior lives in the brain and bone marrow, and so far there has not been a case of the prion passing to other species or humans, but that's not necessarily a risk we should take. It is related to Mad Cow Disease, and its origin has been traced to deer farms. (Its not the deer farms that created the prion, but transporting livestock and having infected livestock escape released the prion to wild herds).


To combat the spread of CWD, the MN DNR requires that all hunters summit their animals to a testing station during the first week of hunting. The deer are sexed, and aged by counting 'cheek teeth'.

Then, we used scalpels to cut across the deer's neck to find the lymph nodes. If the deer was infected, the lymph nodes would hold traces of the protein. The sample was paired with a card of information and put into a cooler. Since we were outside of a CWD management zone, the hunters could process their meat right away. In zones where CWD had been confirmed, hunters are advised to wait for results, and if the test is positive, it is not recommended they consume the deer. The prion does not 'live' in the meat, but it could be released by braking or sawing through bones, and we just don't want to risk spreading this to other areas or people.

In the spring of my freshman year, I volunteered with a group to help the DNR preform bobcat necropsies (an autopsy preformed on animals). In Minnesota, all bobcat trappers are required to send in their catch to the DNR so the state can collect population data. We were put into a cold warehouse with trailer beds full of hairless carcasses (the trappers can keep the pelt, and can request to have the skull returned). A DNR officer showed up the process and we got to work. The officer was probably really grateful - it looked like she was the only one working, and there were thousands of cats to count!


The first thing to do with a carcass was sex it. With felines, the only thing you could really do to be sure was put a finger down there and feel for something. If it were male, we used clippers to cut off part of the bottom jaw. One of the most accurate ways to age a dead animal is by extracting the canine teeth and putting them under a microscope to observe the cementum deposits. This is the same as counting rings on a tree - cementum is deposited seasonally, faster in times of lots of resources like summer, and slower when resources are scare such as the winter. Knowledge of when young are typically born can age animals to the half-year.


If the carcass was female, there was an additional step to removing the teeth - removing the uterus. Birthing kits leaves scars on the uterine lining which can be counted. Not only can we tell how old the cat is, we can tell how many kits it had over its lifetime. This provides great information on last years birth-rate.


One the hard work is done, we put the jaw, uterus, and hunter's tag into a bag ready to be sent off to the lab. If the hunter requested a skull, we would cut off the entire head and sent it in. The rest of the carcass is disposed of, probably to be used as fertilizer. I was allowed to take home a large male bobcat skull that no one else wanted!


Greater Prairie Chicken.


As the snow thawed, my next volunteer opportunity with the DNR was Prairie Chicken habitat restoration. It was as simple as cutting samplings! We worked on the side of county highways, trudging through blinding white snow a foot or so deep and cutting as many encroaching trees as we could before lunch. Prairie chickens need open grassland in the summer and fall to breed and raise young. But where there's open spaces, trees like to grow, so maintaining grassland habitat means cutting and burning. Environmentalism and wildlife management is often a lot more complicated than 'save the trees!'


The following year of 2019, we focused a lot on tracking projects. Bemidji has a quaint little section of forest with a few miles of walking trails. Its the perfect place in the winter to practice identifying animal tracks and trails.

A wolf and coyote print we found, side by side.


With a group of professional trackers, we learned obvious animal identification, but also how to estimate body size from stride length, tools for measuring, how to play with light to get the best image, and to keep an eye out for signs besides tracks. The most important thing I learned was keeping an open mind.


People, including some scientists, may think that the scientific method is infallible, or at least, they are. Certain branches that run on strict rules like mathematics or physics may be more prone to this approach, but biology, and any likewise study dealing with living thing, has an inescapable truth. There is no guaranteed answer. You are always going to deal with a uncertainty factor. I wouldn't trust anyone who goes into this field claiming they've 'seen it all' and therefor know it all. The professional trackers I worked with - the people who had been doing this for years and could guess the sex of a turkey by its footprint - admitted that they had a lot to learn. The same goes with a bunch of my college professors, they were always open to learning new things and encouraging their students to keep an open mind. When we came across a track or sign that was too obscure or disformed, we were told it was okay to admit you didn't know something after collecting all the valuable information.


Tracking continued for a while in the spring of 2020, until you-know-what happened. Obviously all my schoolwork was transferred to digital formats, and the many volunteer opportunities were put on hold. This past year, I've been taking all my classes online. Works been done, but for a girl who loves the outdoors and doing stuff, it's been tough. My career in biology is only just beginning, and I'll have plenty of time for other opportunities in the future.


If you would like more information on biology or wildlife management, visit your states/cities natural resource website. (For me, it is the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, but different departments have different names). Your local university may also have free resources or volunteer opportunities. The Wildlife Society is a great online website of research projects, articles, and opportunities (some are only accessible through a membership). Whenever looking at online articles from public or news sources, remember to read the information carefully and take note of the author's background on the subject, indented audience, and possible motives for the writing. The internet has lots of information, but unfortunately we have to work to separate the fact and fictions.


Ha det bra!


A.L.Exley




1 view0 comments

Recent Posts

See All