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Davis, California

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Not just your average roadkill study

Furry creatures, big and small, can be found in an array of decomposition lying on the sides of roadways, highways and freeways all across the country.

But what has become a morbid fascination or comic punch line in the broader culture is a serious matter for a study organized by the UC Davis Road Ecology Center.

“It’s not just about the gore and the blood but the mass quantity of road kill…is what was most alarming to me,” Dave Waetjen said.

Waetjen, a UC Davis geography graduate student, is the project programmer for the California Roadkill Observation System (CROS), a data collecting web site that allows volunteers to register and enter information and pictures of observed roadkill.

Operating for a year now, the web site as of publication, registered 421 volunteer observers statewide, who have observed 7,289 roadkill observations from 212 species.

While CROS is not the first system of its kind to collect roadkill data, it is the first to involve citizen observers and probably the largest, said Fraser Shilling, lead scientist for CROS.

Volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds and professions, from wildlife research agencies to animal control, to the everyday citizen keeping an eye out for roadkill.

Using volunteers is an important aspect of the collecting process because it increases the amount of area that can be covered and it connects people to things they care about, Shilling said.

Retired veterinarian, Ronald Ringen, is the top registered observer and according to the CROS system has made a total of 1,489 roadkill observations.

In a Sept. 13 interview with the NY Times, Ringen said he has now garnered the nickname ‘Doctor Roadkill’ from friends.

“I find it to be very fascinating actually, to discover the variety of species as well as unfortunately the large numbers of animals killed,” Ringen said to the Times.

In fact the sheer number of animals killed every year by vehicles is not totally represented by the CROS observations.

Shilling estimates that the number of roads and freeways represented in the sample accounts for only 1 to 2 percent of the total number in California.

Taking into account all the major and minor roadways in California, the total impact would be closer to one million per year on animals, Shilling said.

The quantity of animals is not the only surprising statistic that Shilling and other researchers observed, but the number of species of animals killed.

In an August 2010 report, researchers noted that observers have reported a variety of species -including raccoons, lizards and barn owls to larger mammals such as deer and coyotes- representing half of all vertebrates in California.

“So to find half [of all vertebrates] dead on the small amount of roads [we surveyed] indicates that if we observed all the [roadways] we can find all the biodiversity of California dead on the road,” Shilling said.

Although the data so far paints a gruesome picture of the affects of our driving habits on the environment and animal populations, there is a silver lining within all this information.

“When people see the website, they do want to participate. One important thing we need to see is that things can start changing,” Waetjen said.

While effectively influencing environmental policies that can decrease vehicle and animal collisions can take years, volunteers collecting the data is evidence of how important the issue is to animals and people alike, Waetjen said.

One avenue that researchers are exploring to make data collection easier is open-source phone applications that can be accessed and modified by anybody.

Shilling and his team of researchers have also developed a similar program to CROS in Maine called the Maine Audubon Wildlife Road Watch.

“The project is still very young and, a movement like this, I’m very excited to see where it is going to go,” Waetjen said.

For more information or to start data collecting go to wildlifecrossing.net/california.

JESSY WEI can be reached at features@theaggie.org.

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