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Florida’s new snowbirds

Graduate students Denara Manning and Sarah Clavio have had one stinky job to do recently. The pair has been researching coyotes in Pinellas County, more specifically in Brooker Creek Preserve. However, they’ve not been looking for the actual coyotes, as might be expected.

The pair has been collecting coyote feces in order to determine parasitic infestation rates and dietary information. They also hope to find a way to quantify the number of coyotes in the region through DNA extracted from the collected samples.

Prompted by the fact that not much is known about coyotes in Florida, Clavio and Manning are trying to understand more about this predator.

Coyotes are not native to Florida, said Melissa Grigione, professor of environmental science and policy and also the project’s supervisor.

“By looking at diet, parasites and genetics, we’re getting a handle on (the) numbers of coyotes and what they’re eating,” Grigione said.

The dietary information is crucial to understanding coyote attacks and genetics relates to how specific animals move throughout their territory, Grigione said.

Both Manning and Clavio have been hard at work around Brooker Creek tracking coyotes in hopes of collecting feces. Once back at the USF lab, each has a unique role in the study. Manning is responsible for the dietary and parasite data collection, while Clavio works on the genetic end of the project.

“Coyotes are one of the few species of predators who’ve actually expanded their range in the presence of humans,” said biogenetics professor Ron Sarno, who is overseeing the genetic aspects of the project.

“With the genetics, we’re not immediately looking for where the animals are coming from but just (using) the fecal sample to identify the minimum number of coyotes (that) are using the preserve,” Sarno said.

Manning pointed out the interdependence of the aspects of the project.

“I’m able to see what parasites are in a sample, but I could be looking at the same sample two different times and thinking there are twice as many parasites if I didn’t know the genetics. Sarah is able to give a specific ID to each sample so that it prevents me from duplicating the infestation rate that’s there,” Manning said. “Genetics ties everything together.”

“We knew that coyotes were moving into the area,” Grigione said. “But where are they actually coming from and what kind of an impact (coyotes) are having on a Florida ecosystem that’s never had coyotes before?”

Coyotes may be a potential source of competition for native predators such as panthers and black bears. This leads to the issue of how to manage them.

“Since (coyotes) do well in both rural and non-urban areas, will they be the next top dog? And the question is really, how are they exploiting Florida?” Grigone asked.

The project should finish up sometime this winter, according to Grigione, who hopes to publish the concluded data shortly thereafter.

“If we don’t understand their ecological role,” Grigione said, “then how are we going to effectively manage these critters?”