Cameras on black bears provide research and contact opportunities for VA Tech and Mill MT Zoo

A Virginia Tech research team puts collars on black bears using small video cameras to gain insight into the bears’ daily activities.

A typical encounter with a black bear in Virginia looks something like this: You hear the rustle of leaves and then see a patch of black fur as a large animal shuffles into the thick underbrush of the forest.

Now researchers in the University of Natural Resources and Environment take a closer look at our elusive neighbors and share some of their findings with the public, both on social media and in a new exhibition at Mill Mountain Zoo in Roanoke.

The newest bear need: video cameras

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The research project on bear behavior, led by Professor Marcella Kelly of Department of Fish and Wildlife Protection19 black bear collars are put on with small video cameras to give a snapshot of the everyday moments of bear life.

“The camera takes 20 seconds of video every 20 minutes,” said Kelly, a subsidiary of Fralin Life Sciences Institute. “At this rate, we can get data from each bear for about two months, which tells us a lot about their behavior and especially about their diet, which we could not get through stomach content or fecal analyzes.”

Masters student Brogan Holcombe, who previously managed Kelly’s Laboratory for the analysis of habitats and populations of wild animals, said the information they collect provides new insights into bear behavior as well as information on more general land management issues.

“The deer population in the central Appalachian Mountains has declined in recent years,” said Holcombe. “One of the questions we’re investigating is whether bears are affecting this decline, and how. Do black bears loot deer carcasses, do they actively look for fawns when they fall in early June, or is it something else? “

Research is part of the broader one Carnivore Project in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, led by Kelly, who studies the predator-prey dynamics of bears, coyotes, and bobcats. By attaching GPS collars to predators and then monitoring them when they cluster around a dead animal, researchers can go into the field and perform forensic analysis to determine how the prey species died.

“Bears are challenging because they gobble up food quickly, so we couldn’t answer many questions about their eating habits by searching their clustered locations,” noted Kelly. “We came up with the idea of ​​attaching cameras to bears, and Safari Club International and the Acorn Alcinda Foundation funded the camera collar project.”

While camera footage of bears enjoying fresh game dishes attracts the most attention, the footage also has the potential to spark land management considerations around invasive plant species in the region.

Professor Marcella Kelly, right, leads the research project, supported by Master’s student Brogan Holcombe, left. Photo by David Fleming, Virginia Tech.

“In our preliminary analysis of just a few bears, we found that the females tend to eat the invasive grapeberry while the collared male prefers the native bilberry and blueberry,” Holcombe said. “Since female bears tend to have smaller ranges, we don’t know if they are significantly spreading grapes, but we keep this separate in our analysis to provide state officials with information for their research into this invasive plant. ”

Connect research with the public

Some of the footage Kelly and Holcombe collected about foraging behavior from bears, as well as videos Kelly previously collected about captive bears, are courtesy of the Professor. released Sarah Karpanty. Her senior class in conservation biology at the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation used some of the footage to create instructional videos about black bear behavior that Mill Mountain Zoo was able to share with visitors.

“This was a great opportunity for our students to share the amazing research of Dr. Kelly with the Mill Mountain Zoo conservation mission, ”Karpanty said. “Conservation biology involves a lot of interaction and contact with the public, and this has been a great opportunity for our students to do this type of hands-on work to engage and educate people.”

Karpanty students also practiced using state-level politics to better educate the public: the voice-overs in the videos convey information about the black bear management plan developed by the state Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources.

Holcombe who hashtagged some of the black bear videos on Twitter #BearsEyeView, said that social media is another area where wildlife researchers find traction with the public. The hashtag even caught the attention of Backpacker Magazine, which was running Story about the project.

“Posting new videos encourages people to get involved in something that might otherwise feel like it’s happening elsewhere,” said Holcombe, who has also used social media to help identify some lesser-known plant species and even to get some insects that the bears have to eat. “By using these platforms, we can create a storyline of our research that allows people to scroll through our work in real time.”

For Kelly, who also runs a long-term jaguar surveillance project in Belize, the success of the bear camera recordings has the potential to open up new avenues for monitoring animal behavior for other species.

“The video quality was remarkably high, so we were able to profile the bears’ diets in more detail than I originally expected,” she said. “While there are still challenges to be overcome with the weight of the camera batteries, I can envision a future where we can recreate this type of surveillance on coyotes or bobcats and even deer.”

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