2005-12-29 / News

Researcher shares coyote study with students

By Michaela Kennedy

Biologist Numi Mitchell (center), Jamestowners Ray Ionetta, and Tracy Johnson, a veterinary technician at the West Greenwich Veterinary Hospital, measure the length of a coyote caught on the north end of Jamestown prior to attaching the GPS collar and releasing him. The coyote has a white tipped tail, which Mitchell says is unusual. Biologist Numi Mitchell (center), Jamestowners Ray Ionetta, and Tracy Johnson, a veterinary technician at the West Greenwich Veterinary Hospital, measure the length of a coyote caught on the north end of Jamestown prior to attaching the GPS collar and releasing him. The coyote has a white tipped tail, which Mitchell says is unusual. Students from all over the state will soon be virtually following coyotes through fields, forests, and back yards on Conanicut and Aquidneck Islands.

The Narragansett Bay Coyote Study is geared up to invite students to take an in-depth scientific look at the wild canines through geographic information system software. The Conservation Agency recently held a two-part workshop at the Lawn Avenue School for educators who will bring the study into the classroom.

“The point of the study is to bring the information into the classroom using cutting edge GIS technology,” Numi Mitchell, the biologist heading up the project told the educators present at the meeting. The first three-hour session focused on how to use the GIS software, and was followed up with three more hours of training that highlighted the coyote data collected to date and how to analyze it.

The study utilizes ArcView 9, a desktop mapping tool from Environmental Systems Research Institute. The software was donated to the project, and all participating organizations can download it into as many as 500 computers in a school, including a teacher’s own computer at school.

Numi Mitchell, vice president of the Conservation Agency and director of the coyote study, cotaught the seminar with Lyn Malone, a specialist in the educational application of geographic information software and author of “Mapping Your World: GIS Lessons for Educators.”

Having completed the six-hour training, educators will introduce lesson plans that have been written for students from kindergarten through high school. In class projects and after school programs will be planned depending on the organization involved.

Rachelle Neiheiser, the education co-ordinator for the project, was on hand to answer questions on the educational components of the project. According to Neiheiser, the project offers educators a wide range of interdisciplinary principles with which to address a variety of curricular needs.

GIS software

A retired middle school teacher herself, Malone knows how workers in education “are confronted every day with new software.” But unlike many educational programs that come and go, Malone stressed that the GIS software was “a new phase (of technology) that is growing in the real world.”

She noted how GIS and other spatial technologies were increasingly becoming the driving force for real world decision making in settings that range from local to global levels. “This is not just a program for making maps but for analyzing data,” she said.

Malone shared examples of how GIS is used to solve problems and make decisions in the world today. Tracking diseases, analyzing automobile emissions at stop lights, tracking customers and their purchases, and showing areas of vegetation loss from forest fires were just a few uses in many areas of GIS data manipulation in professional research, Malone said.

“It’s a wonderful analytical tool,” she added.

Malone brought up a screen showing earthquake events data. “When you can visualize the data, it speaks to you. You cannot see what data is telling you until it’s mapped out,” she said. Malone explained that geographic location, combined with information, “is what the system is.” She gave more examples of how the GIS has helped communities, from monitoring seasonal water quality to identifying crime patterns.

“Police departments have used it to analyze and revise their police routes,” she noted.

So what’s the big deal with coyotes? Malone asked the question that has often been heard from those who are skeptical of the project. “When something is in your neighborhood, like the coyotes, it makes it personal,” Malone said.

“I think this is going to be one of the most fascinating topics from an educational standpoint. People are concerned, whether it’s coyotes here or toads in the Midwest that farmers worry about. Even the toads have little GPS collars,” she noted.

Malone outlined why GIS is such a valuable tool in an educational setting, and how it can help teachers reach educational goals. “If we want to provide students with skills to meet the challenges and realize the opportunities of the 21st century, GIS facilitates and fosters problem-based learning,” she said.

Malone encouraged the teachers to go online to www.esri.com to explore more educational material supported by the software.

High tech coyotes

The second day of the workshop centered on the coyote data collected so far and how to analyze it using the GIS software. The study is designed to answer questions such as, how many coyotes are there? Are they a threat? Do we need a management plan to co-exist with them?, according to Mitchell.

She went on to say that the students would be able to find the answers for themselves, utilizing real scientific data and region specific information.

“Normal New England density is three to five coyotes per 10 square miles,” she noted, adding that they would be able to compare their results on the islands with results of studies done elsewhere.

Mitchell showed the participants a map of Conanicut Island with points plotted from two different coyotes donning global satellite tracking collars. She explained how data were collected from the GPS collars at set intervals during a 24-hour period, and the collars transmit the data every 15 minutes every morning.

Mitchell pointed out core areas of points on the map that were probably defended by the coyotes, and areas from Beavertail to the north end where they had traveled. She also pointed out areas where no coyote points were tracked. “I caught a big male this morning in an area that was empty of tracked points,” Mitchell said, suggesting that there might be another pack in that area. “The points show that coyotes are territorial,” she noted.

Mitchell showed how a GIS user could click on a location point to bring up a window of data, with a fixed date and time when the coyote was there.

“Is it typical for a coyote to visit the same spot at a different time of day?” asked one of the teachers. “Maybe your students will tell us,” responded Mitchell with a big smile.

Mitchell noted that a plus to having coyotes on the islands was that they are a top predator and may aid in the control of the deer population. But a con is the danger of losing pets that are left to stray unattended.

Mitchell emphasized how exciting this process was from an educational point of view. She said that the software would enable the students to ask questions right alongside the scientists, bringing real-time field study into the classroom for the first time.

“We look at night and day patterns. You can see clusters of points on the map,” Mitchell noted. The GIS users would be able to analyze feeding patterns, as well as sleeping and awake patterns, she also noted. “One strategy with coyotes shows that they are just a little too tame,” Mitchell said, hinting that the animals might be attracted into back yards where food was left out.

In addition to educators, representatives from Conanicut Marine Services and Jamestown Boat Yard attended the training. Both companies are using GIS software to keep track of their mooring fields.

With its home base right here on the island, the Conservation Agency is a non-profit, scientific organization that is active all over the world in the conservation and preservation of natural biodiversity. To learn more about the coyote study or to become involved, check out www.theconservationagency. org.

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