This semester was William Severud's first teaching 417/517 Large Mammal Ecology and Management.
The assistant professor in South Dakota State University's Department of Natural Resource Management is a firm believer in hands-on, experiential learning. He created the "Large Mammal Ecology and Management Lab" to provide students those types of opportunities.
Each week this semester, students—the majority of whom are wildlife and fisheries sciences or natural resource law enforcement majors—experience and learn different skills related to large mammal management in a variety of locations.
One of the most notable—and for some, stomach turning—meetings this semester was the necropsy lab. Necropsy—not to be confused with autopsy—is the post-mortem examination of an animal species.
For this lab, South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks provided two dead animals—a raccoon and a coyote—for investigation. Peter Moisan, an associate professor in the Department of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences and a pathologist in SDSU's Animal Disease Research and Diagnostic Laboratory, was present to facilitate the necropsy. Moisan has significant experience in necropsies, having facilitated investigations of creatures ranging from "crickets to baboons."
As Severud explained, the purpose of a necropsy is two-fold. First, it is important to figure out the cause of mortality or how the animal died. Was the animal hit by a car, or did it succumb to a disease? Understanding the reason behind the death can help inform future conservation efforts and provide insights into the species behavior for a particular area or region.
Second, it’s important to investigate if the animal has any abnormalities or lesions. Knowing if the animal was sick or disease ridden is also highly important.
Throughout the examination, Moisan collects samples from the animal’s various organs and tissues which will later be tested for disease at the ADRDL. These samples can aid researchers in identifying issues amongst the animal populations.
On the academic side, students can learn a lot about an animal just by observing a necropsy. Because of Moisan's experience and knowledge, students in Severud's lab were able to pick up on his techniques and insights.
"Necropsies help us gain a much better understanding of the animal," Moisan said.
There were no abnormalities on either of the animals, and it was determined that the racoon had died from hypoxia as it had a ruptured trachea. The coyote's death was a bit of a "murder mystery," but after the examination, it was determined the cause of death was due to a bullet wound in the lungs. The animal also had a compound fracture in its femur.
Learning useful skills and putting those skills into practice are also apart of Severud's Large Mammal Ecology and Management Lab. In early March, students met at the Dakota Nature Park at the southern edge of Brookings, where Severud had a few skills-based activities set up.
The first had students using a telemetry tool. For wildlife researchers, conservation officers and scientists, radio telemetry—as it is often referred to as—is used to track the movement and behaviors of animals by using the transmission of radio signals. There are two different types of radio telemetry techniques, satellite tracking using GPS and very high frequency (VHF). For this lab, the students used VHF to locate transmitters Severud hid in the park. The students were given antennas and receivers to facilitate their search.
In wildlife research, there are two primary applications to radio telemetry: homing and triangulation. Homing is the process of approaching the transmitter—or animal with a transmitter collar—to find the bodies of dead animals, nests or dens of animals, or identify an elusive animal.
Triangulation is used to estimate the location of the animal by taking compass bearings of different locations pointed toward the strongest signal. This technique is utilized when researchers want to know where an animal is approximately located.
For this activity, students utilized both triangulation and homing techniques since they were asked to first find the approximate then exact location of the transmitter.
Other activities included range-finding practice, both through estimating and with a rangefinder.
Students also observed an ongoing research project conducted by Amanda Cheeseman, an assistant professor in the Department of Natural Resource Management that seeks to gain a better understanding of the weasel population. Students observed the various cameras that were set up in the park that will determine if weasels are present.
Other adventures included a February trip to SDSU's Oak Lake Field Station, where students searched for tracks after a fresh blanket of snow.
Of course, a large mammal lab wouldn't be complete without some face-to-face time with living, large mammals. During a meeting in January, Severud and his class traveled north to Watertown's Bramble Park Zoo, where they learned what it takes to properly take care of bison.