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Saturday, October 16, 2021

The new tool for biologists: A bag of chicken

Could a bag of chicken scraps help protect an endangered species? The answer is yes.

A team of biologists recently uncovered an unknown population of the endangered Sierra Nevada red fox in the mountains east of Modesto using just a bag of chicken scraps.

Only there to photograph the wild animals, Sherri Lisius and Adam Rich, wildlife biologists from the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest and Stanislaus National Forest respectively, were using chicken to bait the animals into viewing area. So it came as quite a surprise when the endangered species of fox showed up with the bag of chicken in mouth.

“We got the pictures and we knew who the species experts were and contacted them immediately of course, and they asked if there was anything that might be available that would have DNA on it. We instantly thought of the bait sock because it had been chewed on,” said Rich. “It was very exciting for us.”

The biologists overnighted the bag of chicken – spit included – to a UC Davis lab and got the results within a few days.

Until now, only one small population of Sierra Nevada red fox at Lassen Volcanic National Park was known to exist. Those remaining 20 members were thought to be the last of this endangered species.

“Finding the Sierra red fox is an extraordinary claim, so we needed extraordinary evidence,” Rich said.

Wildlife genetics researchers Ben Sacks and Mark Statham at the UC Davis Veterinary Genetics Laboratory collected saliva off of the teeth punctures in the bag. They were very excited to confirm the identity of the animal as a Sierra Nevada red fox.

“It’s a second population when we thought we were down to one,” said Sacks. “That’s huge good news.”

Since 2006, Sacks and his lab have been analyzing California red fox DNA from the hair, saliva and fecal matter of live animals. He also has done extensive work on the bones and skin of museum specimens.

Statham echoed Sack’s excitement, emphasizing the significance of this find.

“It’s very rare that we get the holy grail of conservation,” Statham said.

More than that, the saliva confirmed that this population came from the same population that was there in the 1890s.

“We were able to compare the genetics of this individual to the late 1890s individuals and see that this comes from the same population that was historically there,” Sacks said.

This evidence both validates the population’s endurance and confirms that the fox was not just dropped off there, but is actually part of a population that has been living in that area for quite a while.

There have been no verified sightings of the Sierra Nevada red fox south of Mount Lassen since the mid-1990s. Rich hypothesizes that this population’s temperament may contribute to why there have been so few sightings.

“It seemed to be pretty wild,” said Rich. “It was not food conditioned; it wasn’t a beggar fox as some of the foxes found up in Lassen were.

His team has set up cameras to detect possible fox movement, but the foxes only come out at night.

“They appear to be very secretive,” Rich said.

Rich pointed to UC Davis as a main contributor to biologists’ knowledge of wildlife species and therefore effective conservational efforts.

“To have available research expertise and the facilities of UC Davis makes a world of a difference in how we are able to get good information so we can manage the land and species on it better,” Rich said.

Most importantly, finding this second population means this species is in less danger of extinction than originally thought.

“Learning about an additional subpopulation gives us hope that the species can continue to exist in California. Prior to that, there was just that one population in Lassen, and so it looked gloomy for the future for continuing to have the Sierra red fox,” said Rich. “Now we don’t have to write the fox off as if it’s going to go extinct … it gives us new hope.”

Cammie Rolle can be reached at science@theaggie.org.

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