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Drones for Good: Researcher to Study Foxes From the Air

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Desert kit fox in the Antelope Valley | Photo: © Benjamin Smith

Desert kit foxes are in trouble. Never all that common to begin with, the critters face a range of threats from renewable energy development in their habitat to a terrifying outbreak of distemper, a near-uniformly fatal disease. But a bid to list the foxes as threatened in California failed earlier this year, in part because we just don't know enough about the animals.

A wildlife biologist grad student at Duke University wants to remedy that lack of knowledge, and she's using some remarkably new technology to do so -- both in the field and on the Internet.

In order to assess just how much danger the desert kit fox is in, the state's wildlife managers would like to have some baseline data on the fox. We're talking baseline data like "how many kit foxes are there?"

That's what Duke University graduate student Dipika Kadaba hopes to address with her work this summer, studying desert kit foxes in the Chuckwalla Valley in Riverside County. "The goal of this project is to create a snapshot of desert kit fox habitat in an area where there's already considerable human activity and a lot more of that to come in the near future," says Kadaba. Her team, already in the field this summer, will be mapping the habitat and where foxes choose to live in that habitat, with an eye toward determining what makes kit foxes decide to inhabit one stretch of creosote flats and not another. "It's a great tool for planning where to focus your resources," says Kadaba.

Ordinarily, wildlife biologists would go out and count the animals in a range of different kinds of habitat and then extrapolate across the state to come up with population estimates. But desert kit foxes, which are a subspecies (Vulpes macrotis arsipus) of the more common kit fox Vulpes macrotis, offer a couple of obstacles to that kind of straightforward survey.

For one thing, they're quite reclusive. They hide in their burrows for the most part during the day, and they try their best to avoid human contact. For another thing, their prime habitat is in the middle of the stinking hot desert, where it can take a special kind of commitment to the science to conduct surveys in summer: searching for burrows or fox sign in summer can involve days of fieldwork in temperatures above 110 degrees, hiking for miles in rugged terrain. As with many other species in the California desert, the rigors involved in conducting research mean that we don't know nearly as much about desert kit foxes as we'd like.

Why not just study the foxes in winter? Kadaba points out that there are certain behavioral factors that make that less ideal. They involve the behavior of the foxes and the institutions that house the scientists who study the foxes.

"Summer just presents the best opportunity for field work when you're in the academic world," she says. "It works out great because the fox kits (pups) of the year have left the den, so all the foxes in the area will be out and about, along with certain reptiles that disappear for the winter."

Kadaba, who worked with the Center for Biological Diversity on the ill-fated petition to list the foxes, has come up with a potential way to make those summer surveys easier on both the researchers and the foxes. Rather than beat the bushes looking for fox burrows by day, which takes a very long time and runs the risk of stressing the foxes besides, Kadaba and her team plan to use inexpensive drones fitted with video cameras to do most of the initial survey work. Flying the drones over a patch of desert in a meticulous pattern guided by GPS satellites, Kadaba's team should be able to cover far more ground more thoroughly than they'd be able to on foot.

What makes this even better is the fact that desert kit foxes seem not to be bothered by low-flying aircraft. At least that's the experience wildlife managers report from Arizona's Barry Goldwater Air Force Range, where the foxes seem to carry out their business more or less unaffected by jets screaming overhead.

As shown in Kadaba's crowdfunding video pitch, which is about half funded a month before her deadline, the drones are light and relatively quiet, a good thing for foxes accustomed to desert solitude.

Also mentioned in the video: once active dens are found, Kadaba's crew will also be setting out "footprint traps" -- areas of a plaster-like substance that will collect examples of fox prints for future researchers's use.

Wildlife biology has a bit of an undeserved reputation for staid old-school technophobia, so Kadaba's tech savvy may seem a bit incongruous. Crowdfunding for drones doesn't seem like something a tweed-clad binoculars-wearing natural historian would gravitate toward. But get used to it: as academic grant funders continue closing off access to the money researchers need, the new generation of wildlife biologists are finding unorthodox, creative ways of getting their work done. They have to.

And for Kadaba, there's more at stake than her postgraduate work. "We're attempting to capture how sensitive desert kit foxes are to impacts on their ecosystem -- hopefully this will get people to think a little harder and longer when fox habitat is at stake."

You can follow Kadaba's Desert Kit Fox Project at its Duke-hosted blog and its Facebook page.

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