By Austin Roy – Scientific Aid
Winter is usually a time to cozy up in front of the fire with a cup of hot chocolate, but winter for the endangered Amargosa vole (Microtus californicus scirpensis) is a totally different story. These elusive desert rodents do not hibernate like some other mammals. They work during the cold winter nights (as low as 5F /-15C) and cool days in search of food. Because of their yearlong activity, the work at WIL doesn’t slow down over winter either.
Little is known about Amargosa vole behavior and biology. Most of the information available is derived from the Amargosa vole’s cousin, the California vole (Microtus californicus). To remedy our lack of knowledge, a team of researchers and volunteers from WIL, UC Davis, and USGS continues to work through the winter to try to learn more about the Amargosa vole.
Our project involves monitoring the vole population by live-trapping the voles. This trapping allows for us to assess the health of individual voles, record demographic data (age, sex, weight, etc.), give voles individually marked ear tags, and then release the animals back into their environment. This type of research allows us to track changes in the population and get an understanding of the geographic range of the vole. In addition to “hands-on” research, I am also involved with “hands-off” surveillance. Non-invasive techniques such as looking for vole sign (feces and runways), water sampling, and recording vegetation allow me to gain information about the vole and its habitat while creating as little impact as possible.
Also, over the winter months I am continuing to gather data on the predators of the Amargosa vole. Recent findings from USGS suggest that predation might be a limiting factor to the vole’s persistence in its environment. In response to this finding I began a study to observe and document predators. I am deploying trail cameras and once a month I conduct point counts to record predator species that utilize vole habitat. With the help of volunteers, I am also collecting predator feces and pellets. This allows us to examine the diet of predators and identify which predator species are eating the vole.
All of this information is well worth the discomfort of working through cold weather. The data we collect is being applied to the management of the vole and will aid researchers in understanding how to best help this imperiled animal. For this reason, we happily bundle up, heat up some tea for our travel mugs, and embrace the weather as we continue to do our best to help the Amargosa vole survive in such an extreme environment.