Before I started my PhD, I had already done a bit of research in the field of paleontology, mainly on fossil crocodiles. I wanted to shift the focus of my research to answer questions about the ecology and conservation of modern animals. But I didn’t know where to begin. Luckily, my new advisor, Liz, had just the project for me. She and others had been collecting owl pellets from Stanford campus and our local field station, Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, over the last 20 years and wanted a student to analyze them.
So why study owl pellets? Because they are amazing repositories of information! Since owls can’t digest hair or bone, they regurgitate them in the form of pellets — densely packed nuggets of skeletal material. Owl diets largely consist of small mammal species, so their pellets can be used to survey local small mammal communities. Instead of spending days in the field trapping and observing, biologists like me can let owls do the sampling for us. This is especially nice because it is non-invasive, meaning that we don’t have to disturb any animals to get our data. After all, we want to help these animals, not stress them out!
Using my experience identifying bones, I was able to figure out which small mammal species were in the pellets. From this, I pieced together what the local small mammal communities at Jasper Ridge and on Stanford campus looked like over the past two decades. Then I compared small mammal communities from a semi-urban, human-dominated landscape (Stanford) to those from a comparatively wild one (Jasper Ridge) in order to assess human impacts. Because the study site was right in my backyard, I could also continue to collect pellets to add to this dataset. Meaning that a typical “day at the office” could look something like the photo shown here!