When Kameron Culbertson (‘19) first drove out to the Rangeley Lake region in late July to start work on a pilot project with Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIFW), he brimmed with confidence. He thought he had a good idea about what to expect from his upcoming research on moose wallows, the pits made by bull moose during mating season. Culbertson fully expected to have all his plans realized.
The moose had other plans.
“Basically, everything I hypothesized was completely wrong within the first two times of going out,” he said, four months later, with a good natured shrug and a laugh. “It was a little frustrating. I have all these answers I want for these questions. But I didn’t find any.”
It was a hard lesson: life doesn’t always go as predicted. There’s a reason researchers actually go out and do the work. A hypothesis is one thing. Confirming that hypothesis is often quite another..
“There are so many factors that can potentially come into play to understand why wildlife collisions occur along a roadway. For moose collisions, we may not even recognize all the potential contributors. Maybe moose wallows are important and maybe they’re not,” Assistant Professor of Wildlife Biology Dr. Jack Hopkins explained. “Understanding animal behavior from field investigations, versus controlled experiments in a lab, is often complicated. Our first step in this pilot study is to collect data we think are important for informing our next move. At this point, we can’t and shouldn’t be drawing any conclusions about the relationship between wallows and collisions with moose.” It’s a pitfall that many students fall into, Hopkins said, which is why it’s crucial that these young scientists get involved in research before they graduate.
At Unity, that’s never an issue. “Students who want to work on a research project in the field, like Culbertson, can work with a Unity professor, a state biologist, or, ideally, a collaboration with both,” affirms Unity College President, Dr. Melik Peter Khoury. “It is one of the unique learning experiences we offer at Unity College: a student can, as an undergraduate, do hands-on research of their own design with expert guidance from our world-class faculty. That’s an experience that many institutions can only offer their graduate students.”
The moose wallow pilot survey focused on a small stretch of Route 17 between Byron and Rangeley Plantation — a hot spot for moose-vehicle collisions with 53 accidents since 2003. Both MDIFW and the Maine DOT are interested in the potential connections between wallows and car accidents, as collisions between moose and motor vehicles in Maine cause a disproportionately high number of injuries compared with collisions with other animals.
First things first: locate wallows and measure their moose use. In 2001 and 2015, MDIFW and Maine DOT located and measured wallows along the roadway. This fall, Culbertson combed the woods along the highway looking for these GPS-marked wallows, installing game cameras at sites where signs of use were still evident. Similar to early surveys, Culbertson also collected data on the wallows themselves, including soil chemistry, vegetation types, slope to the road, and other measurements.
Culbertson and the rest of the team discussed potential explanations as to how moose wallows could relate to motor vehicle accidents. One thought was that maybe if there were wallows on both sides of the road, and they could track particular moose from wallow to wallow, they could identify trails leading to or across the road. That would certainly help account for the high collision rate in that area.
But the team never found any wallows across the road from each other. For a four mile stretch, every single wallow was on one side of the road, switching sides only after the road went up over a mountain. With eyes on the ground, it became clear that the environment on one side of the road was not exactly wallow-friendly. What had seemed like a solid idea quickly crumbled.
Another aspect of the project was the idea that researchers could identify and track individual moose traveling between wallows using the trail cameras. But Culbertson has doubts after preliminary scans of the data — sometimes all you get of the moose in a trail camera photo is an antler or a leg. A rear end, even.
“You can’t exactly tell a moose to pose for you,” he said. But Dr. Hopkins warns that even this call is a bit too early to make. With 7,000 photos to sort through, they may be able to identify individuals and understand their movements and activity patterns — and they’ll certainly try.
Throughout Culbertson’s learning experience, the main question for the moose wallow survey has remained the same: how do moose wallows relate to road collisions? It’s just that other questions, and potential answers, keep springing up as they learn more. Maybe wallows that are close to the road are linked to mortalities — or that the moose that use them frequently are the ones that end up in accidents. The images and data Culbertson has now will help MDIFW measure the general activity patterns at each wallow, understand why some are more “popular” than others, and determine if trends related to wallow use exist. It is only after these analyses that they can make any conclusions.
“Kameron is just one of those students that jumps at every opportunity that there is. He’s a real go-getter. So I get him involved in things — and he beats my door down to do it,” Dr. Hopkins said. “There’s nothing more valuable for a student than going out and spending a day with state biologists and other wildlife professionals, developing their skills in the field by doing actual work on a real project. Kameron’s done a great job with this work and they are really happy with him. So, to top off a great field experience, he’s also made great contacts with local biologists in an agency he’d love to work for.”
Culbertson admits it’s pretty cool to be “on a first name basis and talking about projects” with state biologists. And now his advisor is having him work on statistical analysis, adding even more skills to an already packed resume. It’s been a roller coaster for him, but completely worth it.
“I like that Unity is small enough that I can get so close to my teachers that they know where I live, and reach out to me directly when there’s an opportunity for me,” Culbertson said. “The exciting part now is that I have a couple thousand pictures of moose to look through. That will be nice. I’ve always been fascinated by trail camera pictures.”
“And everybody likes moose.”