We didn’t find any skulls, so we didn’t get to practice one of our newest skills, namely creating a dental formula that could take us a long way in identifying a mammal species. But we did get to examine poop, and, yes, it was fun!
Dr. Kim Tolson identified this scat as coyote (Canis latrans) because it was full of hair. Of course. Coyotes eat small mammals.
Indeed, we could tell that the hair was “agouti” hair, which we had just learned in class means that the hair featured horizontal bands of color. Rabbits and some rodents have agouti hair and both are common meals for coyotes. We followed this coyote straight down the trail on top of a levee, seeing a nice big print in the soft, damp soil every few yards.
Getting to observe something in the field right after learning it in the classroom is gratifying and fun. The new “sticks” so much better!
We also learned to make a “taxonomic key” to help with identifying species. A key is a series of pairs of questions called “couplets,” with each pair featuring one characteristic of a species. The questions must have mutually exclusive answers, like present/absent or yes/no.
For example, if we had before us several rats, we could begin with a couplet like 1a. Does it have agouti hair? and 1b. Does it have solid color hair? And with that one question you could sort your rats into two groups and then go on to the next couplet, and on to the next. For rats, we learned, we might need 6 or 7 couplets to match one rat with a specific species.
Maybe you must have a fondness for mind-bending puzzles to say doing such a thing was fun. But I thought it was. I’ve become a bit obsessed with knowing the species of things!
Of course, although our focus for a mammals workshop was mammal sign, a bunch of naturalists does not wonder through Russell Sage Wildlife Management Area without noticing many other things. So at one point the trees nearby filled with cedar waxwings. At another we were down on our knees examinging small fungi on a log. And at another point, I fell way behind photographing a damselfly, which iNaturalist says is a Southern Spreadwing (Lestes australis). Cool! I don’t see very many spreadwings.