Chihuahuan Desert Research – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

Chihuahuan Desert Research

In the Chihuahuan Desert, banner-tailed kangaroo rats are being affected by the destruction of grasslands and shrub encroachment. To determine how these environmental changes may be modifying the rats’ movement behavior, Britta Goncarovs ’21, a double major in biology and geoscience, traveled to Las Cruces, N.M., last summer to conduct field research under the direction of Associate Professor of Biology Bradley Cosentino.

The research goals were to test whether kangaroo rats show evidence of movement personalities and to understand how shrub encroachment affects the rats’ movement behavior. Goncarovs and collaborators from the University of Illinois and Jornada Experimental Range designed experiments to assess exploration and aggression by filming the rats and assigning behavioral categories. They also designed an experiment to compare the rats’ level of aggression and explorative behavior in shrublands compared to those in remnant grasslands. Rats were placed in release boxes and an obstacle was placed in front of the box in order to mimic shrub cover. The team then timed how long it took for the rats to exit the release box and return to their burrows.

“We found that shrubland kangaroo rats are quicker to leave the release box and move through the obstruction during the treatment (shrub cover) than the control (no obstruction),” Goncarovs explains. Shrub cover is thought to affect the ability of kangaroo rats to detect predators, primarily snakes. The research team hopes to conduct additional research to determine “whether predators and lunar cycles also have an influence on their behavior,” she says.

Goncarovs has previous experience with ecology research in Cosentino’s lab, having studied movement behavior of red-backed salamander in the Finger Lakes National Forest and mapped deforestation in the northeastern United States using GIS with imagery from Landsat.

“My research experiences have taught me how to manage data,” says Goncarovs. “I’ve created predictions in a unique way within the ecology discipline — as personality work is a new perspective in behavioral ecology — and learned how to apply these methods to other research projects.”

Goncarovs intends to pursue a doctorate in virology in order to study infectious diseases in humans and animals.

In the photo above, Britta Goncarovs ’21 presents her work at the Student Research Symposium in the Vandervort Room.