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Scooping Scat for Science

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Citizen scientist Camille Boag examines a potential coyote scat. | Photo: Jason Goldman

It’s a sunny Monday afternoon and Camille Boag and her rescue dog, Rue, begin their regular walk around Echo Park Lake. With its attractively landscaped lawns and commanding views of downtown's skyscrapers, it’s a beautiful spot for a midday stroll. Dozens of people mill about, most of them walking dogs or getting exercise. We've only just started circling the lake when she stops to take a closer look at something underneath some bushes.

She grabs a stick lying nearby and pokes around, but it's not what she's looking for. "Domestic dog," she says, and continues along the path.

Boag isn't here for the exercise or to tire out her dog, a labrador-pitbull mix. She's looking for coyote scat – the proper scientific word for poo – and it's her job to come here once each month in search of the smelly stuff. With so many dogs in attendance, she's had to become adept at distinguishing between their feces and the coyotes'.

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Though she's got a scientific background and teaches biology at Mt. San Antonio College, her scat-collecting activities are completed entirely pro bono. Researchers with the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area have been studying coyotes for quite some time, but to really understand how animals survive and thrive in urban landscapes like Los Angeles, they've decided to enlist the help of citizen scientists like Boag.

"For a long time, people thought that medium sized carnivores couldn't make it in urban environments," says NPS wildlife biologist Justin Brown. While the continued survival of mountain lion P-22 in Griffith Park has impressed and surprised many, smaller, highly social predators like coyotes have different needs than the big cats and can more easily move between natural and urban areas. That certainly allows them to take advantage of more resources than animals that stick to natural habitats, but it also exposes them to more threats. They drown in our concrete-lined waterways; they get struck by our cars. In the neighborhood of Westlake alone, coyotes were involved in nearly 350 collisions between 2002 and 2013.

"Animals that persist somewhere have to have a food source," Brown tells me. "In these urban environments, a lot of people jump straight to the assumption that it's all domestic animals, so they're eating cats and dogs." But most studies of coyotes living in and around cities, like the long-term study of Chicago's coyote population, have found that coyotes persist primarily on natural prey sources, along with some fruits and other vegetation. Since even Chicago's coyotes prefer sticking to green spaces, nobody really knows how coyotes make a living in the big city.

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Full of fur and bones and twisted at the end means probably coyote. | Photo: Jason Goldman

That's where Boag and her 24 counterparts come in. It's an intensive, high-commitment  project. While some researchers are happy to collect smartphone photos captured opportunistically, these volunteers have agreed to visit their assigned locations once each month for two years, collect any coyote scat they find, seal them in brown paper bags, label the bags, and return them to a central location for the NPS researchers to analyze. Having recently moved to Los Angeles from Northern California, Boag thought she'd be missing being constantly surrounded by nature, which is why she signed up. "This was an opportunity for me to get forced outside," she says, and to learn a little bit more about Southern California wildlife.

By the end of the afternoon, Boag had picked through a lot more dog droppings and found a raccoon latrine, but just four good clumps of coyote scat. While domestic dogs do lick themselves and thus ingest fur, coyote scat has a lot more hair and fur in it, is much more likely to contain bones and seeds, and is usually twisted and tapered at one end. Dog poo, on the other hand, contains mostly mushed up dog food of uniform consistency, and is usually shaped like logs with blunt ends.

In addition to collecting the droppings, volunteer citizen scientists will be invited to attend a series of "scat parties," which involve carefully picking through the frozen, dried-out fecal matter in search of hair, bones, and other telltale items that could shed light on the coyotes' diet. (Biologists have some funny ideas about what qualifies as a "party.")

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Boag and her field assistant Rue work in Echo Park. | Photo: Jason Goldman

Once Brown and his team have enough preserved poo collected by the citizen scientists, they'll be able to get a much more comprehensive understanding of what LA coyotes eat. By combining the information derived from their scat parties with movement data collected from a small number of radio-collared coyotes and with activity data collected through the use of motion-activated camera traps, the researchers will be able to build a nuanced, detailed understanding of what life is like for an Angeleno coyote.

Preliminary investigations have found that our coyotes gobble up everything from gophers and opossums to wild birds, grass, BBQ chicken, guavas, and pet food. If it's available, it seems to be on the menu. What's worrisome is that some coyotes may have come to view humans as a useful source of food, and that's where conflicts arise.

Brown hopes that the information gathered will not only help build a better understanding of urban wildlife ecology in general, but can also be used to aid wildlife managers in controlling or reducing conflicts between people and coyotes, a species far too often persecuted, seen as a pest or as a threat. "Some people think a conflict is a coyote standing in their yard at midnight, while others think a conflict is somebody getting bit," Brown says. In theory, a thorough understanding of how coyotes use urban spaces ought to help alleviate some of the more unfounded fears, and ought to help mitigate some of the real risks that occur when humans and wild animals occur in close quarters. "Our goal is to help people have a much better feeling about wildlife," he adds.

Banner photo by Moosicorn RanchSome rights reserved

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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