Biology students studying groundhog tunnels

  • Biology students studying groundhog tunnels
    Biology students studying groundhog tunnels

What do our local scientists, skunks and snakes all have in common? They all need your help.
A team of nearly a dozen biology students and faculty, led by UNG professors Dr. Erin Barding and Jessy Patterson, are in search of groundhog burrow holes to monitor for research concerning a couple of native species deemed to be in trouble.
“The purpose of the project is more geared toward wildlife conservation,” Patterson said. “We're looking for the Eastern Spotted Skunk and then the Northern Pine Snake. Those are two species of concern within the Northeast Georgia region and other surrounding states, both of those species also live in holes or tree trunks or burrows, especially after they've been abandoned. So that's why we're putting the call out for burrow holes, is because we want to put trail cameras on the holes and just kind of monitor the activity.”
But while groundhogs, which are so common around Dahlonega that they’re often considered pests, have no problem setting up camp anywhere they please, including the middle of the city, Barding and Patterson believe that the species of interest may be a little more modest.
“We are interested at looking at burrows in a variety of habitats,” Barding said. “We can find a bunch of burrows here on campus and in town, but we're interested in comparing also the groundhog uses and other animal use in burrows that have been abandoned both in the city or on campus and then rural areas.”
“We're specifically looking for abandoned burrow holes and especially in rural areas because obviously we can see a lot of burrow holes just kind of on the side of the road and especially along the highway but that's probably not where you're going to find threatened species like the spotted skunk or the pine snake,” Patterson said. “You're probably going to find them in areas that are quieter with less traffic and less people. But then those burrow holes are harder to find, so that's why we're putting the call out to the general public.”
Finding those holes is where the community comes in.
“There are hopefully people who own some property, some private landowners, that might know of some burrow holes back in their property in some fields or in the woods somewhere that are not around as many people,” Patterson said.
The professors ask that anyone that knows of burrow locations and wants to help contact the group. Their team, comprised of eight UNG students and three faculty members, will do the rest.
“We have an email address and a phone number for anybody who is interested in helping us out or just asking questions to contact,” Barding said, “and then what we would do is send probably a couple of people, a mixture of faculty and students that are doing this research at UNG, out to the land owner and out to their land to look at the burrow holes and if we think that it has potential to work in our study we would like to put up trail cams. So basically we'd be asking landowners for access, with prior notice, to their land and the ability to set up possibly a few trail cams in and around the burrows on their land. And we'd want to periodically come and check those and look at the data on them.”
Patterson clarified that the cameras would only capture the happenings around the hole.
“We have some rebar and stakes where we set up the trail camera to where they're pointing directly at the burrow hole and just monitoring that activity,” she said.
The two believe that this project could turn up some interesting and impactful findings that give wildlife conservationists a much better understanding of all three species.
“We would use that information to just report to places like Georgia DNR and other organizations that focus on conservation of wildlife, just to let them know that this is another habitat that these species use. And with species of concern that have low population numbers, it's really helpful to have all of the information possible and so far not that many people have looked at groundhog burrow holes as their habitat,” Patterson said. “We just hope to contribute more information and more data on these species of concern in hopes that they can be implemented and to plan of conservation and management for them later on.”
“We are also interested in the ecology and the behavior of woodchucks, that's probably something that we'll study later on, possibly but we're really right now interested in the burrows and the potential for those burrows to be used by species of conservation concerns or that maybe threatened or decreasing in population,” Barding said. “There's no data that we know of. There's been no studies of woodchucks recently in this area and so we definitely are interested in doing research on the local level. Basically we're interested in gathering as much data as we can via trail cam throughout this year.”
But the wildlife aren’t the only beneficiaries of the project.
“The whole purpose of our research is to give undergraduate biology students the ability to design and develop a research project, implement it and then present that at research conferences or publish papers to scientific journals and then also have collaboration with organizations like the Georgia DNR,” Patterson said. “Because a lot of them want to eventually leave UNG and go onto a graduate program in wildlife conservation or ecology so the first kind of tier of our research is to always provide that opportunity for students and get them the experience in research and present at conferences and publish papers, because that's going to make them more competitive for graduate school.”
And while the results of the project may have a large impact on the biology community, Barding says the habitat itself should feel no effects as a result of the research.
“We're not going to be manipulating anything, we're not going to be moving anything, we're not going to be  digging up anything, it's a passive research project,” she said. “We really are just wanting to put up trail cams and then just access the land with the land owners permission, to retrieve the data and the trail cam. So we wouldn't be digging up their yard.”
Anyone with a tip on a groundhog burrow that would like to help should contact the group at either, or 706-864-1741.