A spring 2015 internship for credit was a walk in the park, or a nature reserve, for California State University, Dominguez Hills students Alex Lepicier and J.J. Baraja, whose findings on those walks turned into a research project that won them a monetary award at the Southern California Academy of Sciences annual meeting in May.
As volunteers for the Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy Citizen Science Wildlife Tracking Team, the students were trained and assigned a hiking trail that they monitored weekly for animal tracks and scat. They would photograph, examine and report back what they found to the conversancy’s steward associate in research, Ann Dalkey, who ran the program.
“Alex and J.J. learned much from me, including my insistence on perfection in their final product,” said Dalkey. “I exposed them to the applied side of science, emphasizing skills needed to digitize and manage data, assess data and assemble a report using the scientific format.”
Baraja, who graduated in May with his bachelor’s degree in geography, agreed. He said he was happy to get hands-on experience, such as using GIS mapping software to compile the data.
“Instead of just doing the tutorials, like in class, we were actually doing it,” he said.
After gathering information on the trails, the duo compared it to prior data and completed a research project analyzing the diet of local coyotes. Under Dalkey’s direction, the team looked at whether the coyotes’ location in a transitional zone between unoccupied land and human development influenced what they ate and what other factors might affect their diet, as compared to coyotes in more undeveloped areas such as the Santa Monica Mountains.
Baraja and Lepicier found that coyotes in the Filiorum, Portuguese Bend and Forrestal Reserves on Palos Verdes Peninsula ate a larger diet of cat during 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 compared to the prior three years, which data showed a more varied diet of rodent and other wild animals and vegetation, with some cat. Data from studies done in the Santa Monica Mountains showed a diet mainly consisting of rodents and rabbits.
They concluded that rain influences food availability for the coyotes in their natural habitat, causing them to seek out housecats from neighboring developed areas when lack of rainfall decreases the population of other rodents for them to consume. They observed that during the period of no ran from November and December 2014, the prey percentages for cats were high, whereas in January through March after some rainfall, the coyotes had an increase in rodent and rabbits in their scat. They believe the rodent and rabbit population increases when rains provide more vegetation for food.
The research was compiled into a poster, “Do coyotes (Canis latrans) residing on the Palos Verdes Peninsula select different prey as a result of residing in a wildland-urban interface,” that Lepicier presented at the Southern California Academy of Sciences annual meeting at Loyola Marymount University on May 15. Baraja wanted to be there, but he was busy attending his commencement ceremony.
The poster placed with an Honorable Mention, earning the team a $250 prize.
“I didn’t think we had a chance of winning, but a lot of people complimented the poster because it was simple and to the point,” said Lepicier, a senior geography major.
The volunteer internship program was a unique opportunity for the students, according to Dalkey. Although there are still plenty of volunteer opportunities at the Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy, the program Baraja and Lepicier experienced will not be available next year.
Lepicier says he is not sure what he is going to do after he graduates CSUDH in fall 2015, but he is happy to have had the experience and will be putting the internship and presentation on his resume. Baraja is seeking out internships and full-time positions where he can use his experience and CSUDH degree, preferably in city or federal government.
For information on other volunteer and internships available at the Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy, check the volunteer tab.