Enviro lab provides valuable learning opportunities

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December 11, 2018
A recent lab had environmental sciences students practicing their vertebrate anatomy skills and contributing to a Royal Alberta Museum project by dissecting owl pellets.
owl pellet lab
Tim Schowalter, a retired wildlife biologist and member of the wildlife and fisheries conservation (WFC) advisory committee, brought Great Horned Owl pellets he collected from across Alberta and Saskatchewan to a WFC lab. As students dissected the pellets, they learned how a predator’s diet can be used to study the distribution of cryptic and nocturnal prey species, including Prairie Voles, Sagebrush Voles and Grasshopper Mice.

"We’re able to identify the bones that we find and see what the difference between rodents and birds is, so it’s really interesting,” says Shaye Hill, a second-year WFC student. “It's awesome because before we actually did get to do the live trapping of some rodents, so doing this later in the year also reinforces those skills."
Using feathers, jaw structures, dentition patterns, bone structures and more found in the pellets, students identified a range of prey species, including Deer Mice, Water Beetles, birds, voles and others.

The remains of mice and voles students found in the pellets were saved for Royal Alberta Museum paleontologists to study. “Using the large samples available from owl pellets, the paleontologists have found that there are small, but consistent, differences in Sagebrush Vole teeth over the last 35,000 years. They will use the students’ samples as part of a study of possible changes in Meadow Vole teeth,” says Schowalter. 

Garry Kohut, a second-year WFC student, says opportunities to gain lab experience like this enhances his Lakeland experience. “It’s neat to be in school and to be part of this. I think it’s more valuable than tests. It’s hard to put a price on these opportunities.”

With Schowalter’s extensive knowledge of exploring and mapping cryptic small mammal distributions using owl pellets as a sampling tool, students also learned about sampling and statistical challenges, and the limits of animal trapping studies.

“An exercise like this helps them understand the skill set that a great naturalist can bring to an environmental study,” says instructor Chris Olsen. “They can also see how valuable it is to bring a diverse range of natural history, anatomic and sampling skills, and most especially a life-long curiosity, to the study of complex environmental questions.”

For Shayla Watson, a second-year WFC student, labs like this not only reinforces course work and builds applied skills, it also helps with future research opportunities. “Knowing that I can do this and that this what a lot of companies ask for in their job requirements, it just makes you a lot more confident,” she says. “Plus, it bonds our class that much more, some of my favourite memories from college are all field labs.”
Photos: From the top, Garry Kohut says spending approximately 20 hours each week engaging in hands-on learning in enviro labs enhances his education; Tim Schowalter takes a look at the bones found in Shayla Watson's owl pellet; and Shaye Hill identifies a number bones during the WFC owl pellet lab.
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