Peanut Butter on the Prairie

by Kinsey Love

The scrumptious spread proves to be an unlikely key in assessing health of local animal populations.

As Carrie Young carefully sets her traps, the sagebrush-speckled landscape is quiet–but not for long.

Within minutes, the familiar chirping of the prairie dogs’ warning call disrupts the desert calm, alerting all wildlife in the vicinity that humans are near. Despite the alarm, Young knows that the tempting treat left as bait will be too much for the critters to resist.

In Vernal, Utah, prairie dogs are a natural part of the desert ecosystem. To be specific, white-tailed prairie dogs call this region of eastern Utah home. Prairie dogs are found only in North America, and only in small pockets of the western United States, making their home in western Wyoming, western Colorado, the very eastern edge of Utah and a tiny portion of southern Montana.

“The prairie dog may seem small and insignificant, but it is vital to the desert ecosystem,” said Young, an undergraduate researcher studying at USU’s Uintah Basin campus. They serve as a significant food source for a number of animals including badgers, hawks and golden eagles. Most notably, the white-tailed prairie dog serves as the main food source for the endangered black-footed ferret.

Though scientists see healthy populations of prairie dogs as a good thing, the general public tends to see them as pests. In recent history, great efforts have been made to exterminate the rodent. People have even been known to use them for target practice, which has resulted in a decrease in the animal’s numbers. Prairie dogs are highly susceptible to bubonic plague, which has also been a factor in the sharp and recent decline of their populations. In reality, declining numbers of prairie dogs are hurting desert ecosystems due to the dependence of so many animals on the prairie dogs as a food source.

In order to help the local Bureau of Land Management gain a better understanding of the white-tailed prairie dog and its longevity, Young spend three months of her summer setting traps across the desert and taking tissue samples for DNA study as part of her undergraduate research. She worked with two groups of prairie dogs living fifteen miles apart in order to understand the gene flow and movement occurring between the two populations. More migration between these groups of prairie dogs living fifteen miles apart in order to understand the gene flow and movement occurring between the two populations. More migration between these groups means a more varied gene pool, which promotes genetic health in a population.

Young tried several different forms of bait to lure the animals into the live traps,  but none were consistently successful.

“I thought it would be easy to trap prairie dogs,” said Young. “It wasn’t as easy as it looked.” The animals have a very keen sense of danger and a very effective alarm system to warn their colonies of danger.

Young didn’t find success until she received a very helpful tip: grape jelly was the key. “A fellow researcher in Colorado tipped me off that I needed to try peanut butter and grape jelly sandwiches. It worked almost every time.”

With the help of a sandwich, she trapped each prairie dog, anesthetized the animal and took a small ear hole punch as a DNA sample. After a short examination, she released the animal and set the trap again.

“I thought it would be easy to trap prairie dogs. It wasn’t as easy as it looked. A fellow researcher in Colorado tipped me off that I needed to try peanut butter and grape jelly sandwiches. It worked almost every time.

Once the samples were gathered and cleaned, Young sent them to the Nevada Genomic Center in Reno, where scientists analyzed the DNA for 18 different microsatellite markers. Microsatellites re small repetitive segments of DNA that are non-coding, which means they don’t affect the physical or behavioral characteristics of an organism. When Young received the results from the Center, she analyzed them to determine the frequency of alleles, or genes, in each population, which in turn, helped determine the gene flow and eventual genetic health between the two colonies of prairie dogs.

“The data we collected showed that there is a good amount of migration and interaction between the two subject colonies,” said Young. “This means that there is plenty of gene flow and essentially good genetic health in these colonies of white-tailed prairie dogs.”

Young was pleased to find that white-tailed prairie dogs are thriving in this region of Utah,  despite their recent population setbacks.

Young’s undergraduate research will be used by government agencies to guide management decisions concerning the black-footed ferret and white-tailed prairie dogs. So far, her research shows a bright future for the grape jelly-loving prairie dogs of eastern Utah.

Undergraduate Research at USU

Carrie Young is an undergraduate researcher at the Uintah Basin Regional Campus of Utah State University. She has greatly advanced her undergraduate education through hands-on research.

“I love being outdoors and doing field work, and the undergraduate research program gave me the perfect opportunity to combine my passion with my education,” said Young. “This research experience has helped prepare me for graduate school and has opened my eyes to professional situations I never would have experienced by myself.”

Young found that the challenge of coordinating equipment, volunteers and the logistics of her project was  quite unexpected, but necessary to learn.

“Undergraduate research has been a priceless experience for me,” she said.

The Undergraduate Research Program at Utah State University has been supporting students in their scholarly and creative work for thirty-five years, since its inception in 1975. Dr. Joyce Kinkead has led the program for the last ten years and has mentored hundreds of students through their undergraduate research experience.

“Undergraduate research is where a student’s lifelong passion for inquiry is born,” said Kinkead. “I have been honored to share in this process.”

Undergraduates from Utah State University participated in the tenth anniversary of Research on Capitol Hill in January 2011 where they presented their finding s with legislators and community members. Undergraduates also share their research annually at the Student Showcase at USU as well as a number of national venues such as Posters on the Hill and the National Conference on Undergraduate Research. Utah State also boasts 15 Goldwater Scholars and six honorable mention recipients since 1998. The Undergraduate Research program is the second oldest such program in the nation, after MIT