After a year of tracking red foxes in Lancaster County, Kyle Dougherty and Elizabeth VanWormer from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln explained how their community research on the animal is essential to understanding the fox’s role in the area’s urban environment.
Dougherty, a graduate student studying natural resources and VanWormer, assistant professor in the school of veterinary medicine and biomedical sciences, presented their findings on the diet, distribution and health of red foxes at The Happy Raven on Sept. 21. The event was part of the Science Cafe, a free event where people 21 and over can hear from scientists, ask questions and offer their opinions in a casual setting.
“Science Cafe is meant to encourage discussion about a range of topics and helps the Lincoln community connect with research being done with faculty and graduate students on campus,” Sarah Feit, volunteer coordinator of University of Nebraska State Museum, said in an email.
The “What does the fox say about life in Lincoln?” presentation was the culmination of research from the Lincoln Fox Project, a citizen science project that kicked off a year ago on a website called iNaturalist where people report fox sightings via the website, Facebook, or the project’s email.
“We’re hoping to use those reported sightings to estimate fox abundance and distribution,” Dougherty said.
Dougherty said the project started because he noticed how most Lincoln residents had stories of seeing a fox around town. The project was designed to record and get useful information from the community’s observations.
Dougherty has always been interested in wildlife health, even before launching the research on Lincoln’s red foxes.
“When I came to UNL I knew I wanted to do research that would help me understand how wildlife health is impacted by human-altered environments,” he said. “Foxes are a pretty common species in urban areas so they ended up being a great study species.”
Over the past year, the Lincoln Fox Project has received over 300 submissions of observations on iNaturalist and other platforms, Dougherty said.
The presentation focused primarily on zoonotic diseases, infectious diseases that are shared between animals and people like bovine tuberculosis, bubonic plague or glanders, which is caused by the bacterium Burkholderia mallei and primarily affects horses.
“We want people to be aware of what [zoonotic diseases] are and that they’re present in the United States,” Dougherty said. “It’s not something you have to constantly worry about.”
Feit said it’s beneficial for people to understand how zoonotic diseases work so they can be aware of the risks of viruses or parasites that could be transmitted to people or their pets.
Dougherty said he’s hoping to assess disease prevalence in the local fox population and learn what zoonotic diseases may be present in Lincoln, but needs to understand the factors that lead to disease exposure.
“Diet, distribution and home range [where the foxes actually live and go] are all factors that could influence disease exposure,” he said.
At the Science Cafe, Dougherty and VanWormer discussed some of the methods they’re using to understand diet, distribution, home range, health and the expected results.
They told attendees how they learn diet information by examining fox feces and by analyzing isotopes to trace the flow of nutrients.
From there, Dougherty and VanWormer talked about how differences in fox diets might lead them to exposure to diseases more or less frequently and the methods that can be used to understand diet and distribution.
Ultimately, Dougherty said he hopes people gain understanding and appreciation for the fox’s role in urban environments and how their health is connected to human, animal and ecosystem health.
“We've been really happy with the response from people,” he said. “[Our project and presentation] are great ways for people who are interested in wildlife research to get involved and to learn more about what we’re working on.”