Massabesic Middle School’s Search for the New England Cottontail

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    A special guest post from Pat Parent of Massabesic Middle School!

    Students at Massabesic Middle School continue “student scientist” efforts with fieldwork into the winter season. Students on the Aroostook team are working with Melissa Brandt of York County Soil and Water Conservation District and the Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and US Fish and Wildlife Service to search for the New England Cottontail (NEC).

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The New England Cottontail has seen its numbers decline by 80% since the 1950s, primarily due to habitat loss. Today, a few known populations of NEC are found at locations along the southern coast of Maine, and it is nearly extirpated in New Hampshire. The Waterboro area is part of the historical range of the NEC, so work is being done to see if there are pockets of NEC that remain inland. The students’ survey work is being done to provide data that could eventually place NEC on the National Endangered Species List.

In a training session, students learned that NEC have very specific habitat requirements, mainly early successional forest. They also have distinct disadvantages compared to their more common cousin, the snowshoe hare. They are smaller, less mobile, have poorer eyesight and most importantly, do not change color in the winter. As a result, NEC requires thick brushy areas to ward off predators. Power lines provide the early successional forest habitat that New England Cottontail require, and with permission from Central Maine Power classes went out on February 13 and 14 under the direction of Melissa Brandt, to survey the area.

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Surveying requires specific protocol. Photo evidence of the tracks, scat and browsing are required. Scat must also be collected for DNA analysis. The survey must be conducted in a window of 36 hours after a snowstorm to no later than 4 days after the snowstorm. It was tough going in the deep snow and through the thickets, but close to 90 student scientists covered a good-sized area over the 2 day period. Probably because of the deep snow, tracks were limited and no convincing NEC evidence was found in the area surveyed.

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Many other interesting findings were made including the remains of a deer carcass, a weasel den with digested mouse remains nearby, many snowshoe hare tracks, scat with larger predator tracks nearby, deer and moose rubbings, as well as lots of browsing evidence. It seems this area is a great habitat for many species.

Science is all about supporting claims with evidence. As we learned from our prior Vital Signs field experience, whether something is found or not found, the data collected provides valid and important information to support research.

You can see some of the local newspaper coverage of our work here.

The Aroostook Team at Massabesic Middle School would like to thank Melissa Brandt of the YCS&WCD for allowing us to be part of this important New England Cottontail survey work.

Comments

I left out something interesting in the post. We cover evolution, endangered and extinct species in class. Students concluded that one of the driving forces of evolution is extinction. We all agreed that we did not want to see species go extinct and had discussions about whether resources should be focused on one cute and cuddly species (panda, polar bear... NEC) or should some species be left alone with the possibility of extinct. Should resources be focused where they would do the most good for the most species, like saving crucial habitats instead, etc. etc. We had some lively discussions. We were all in agreement, irregardless of personal view, we were doing the survey for the science. With more data gathered, more informed decisions can be made in the future.

Our survey made the local Waterboro Reporter a couple of times. One article was about our training for the NEC survey and the other article came out after the actual survey. There was a letter to the editor in between the 2 articles that addressed the issue that if endangered species habitat is identified, land owner rights can be taken away and not compensated. This additional information surprised us all and stirred up further discussion. We all agreed that the landowner alone should not be responsible for costs associated with endangered species.

So as a group, through this whole NEC survey experience, besides the field experience, my "student scientists" are much more informed citizens. They learned first hand that there are usually 2 sides to issues and "saving" species is not as clear cut as first thought. There are no easy answers. Only more questions.