NCBS Intern Report: Finding the Cedar Key Salt Marsh Vole
Written by 2019 Summer Intern Camila Leon, with host Robert McCleery from UF IFAS Wildlife Ecology and Conservation
I was fortunate enough to work with Dr. McCleery and Dr. Taillie’s project for the Nature Coast Biological Station’s internship program this summer. The project focused on finding the range of the Florida Salt Marsh Vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus dukecampbelli), the least understood endangered terrestrial mammal in the United States. This study builds on a previous study done by Dr. McCleery and Dr. Zweig that found the vegetation composition that goes into preferred vole habitat. We did a camera trap study to try to find the elusive rodent.
Field days in the marsh
Marina McCampbell (FSMV project technician) and I started our field days early, gathering gear before meeting our airboat guide. Once we were on the boat, we first went to the pre-selected sites that Dr. Taillie chose with satellite imagery; we occasionally had to pick different sites because the satellite images may not have reflected the actual vegetation we were looking for.
After surveying for a new site that had a good ratio of smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora) and salt-grass (Distichlus spicata), two requirements of ideal FSMV habitat, we set a GPS point and launched into setting up! We used Hunt traps, which is a small mammal camera trap modified for floating in tidal habitat, distributing about 15-20 traps 20 meters apart from each other across our site. We baited each trap with only the best bird seed for our little rodent friends (and some other marsh guests), took vegetation data, and recorded GPS points that Marina later made into a map of the site. Depending on the site, we ended each field day either covered in thick marsh mud or with the tips of Juncus grass stuck in our clothes. We were always exhausted by the end of the day, but were grateful to be able to witness the biodiversity in the environment, from clumsy Great Blue Herons making a crash landing in our site, curious Carpenter Bees that followed us to each trap, lazy manatees in the creeks around us, and even hungry Boat-tailed grackles that visited us during lunchtime.
Spying on a new world
After leaving our cameras out for a week and retrieving the memory cards, our real mission started. With the help of a few volunteers, Marina and I spent the majority of our time looking through thousands of camera trap photos to try to find our cryptic friend. After lots of rodent identification help, photo tagging became one of my favorite past times for this summer. We only managed to find one site that had the rodent, but that information helps us narrow down exactly where the Florida Salt Marsh Vole is. We have a sneak peek into the biodiversity of FSMV habitat, and can see what the community is made up of. The main stars of the show were Marsh Rice Rats (Oryzomys palustris) and Black Rats (Rattus rattus), but we had a few guest stars of raccoons, snakes, and different kinds of birds!
I want to thank Marina McCampbell for helping me during this internship and exploring different dinner spots after long field days, Dr. McCleery and Dr. Taillie for rodent identification help and DigiKam help, and NCBS for allowing me to work for such an amazing project. I loved working in and learning about, Florida’s environment to help make it the best it can be for all the organisms that call it home.