Worcester State Professor Randall Tracy holds a lemming.

Students Join Professor in Search of Imperiled Lemming Species

August 18, 2008
By: Worcester State University News

You may be familiar with the myth of lemming mass suicide. In fact, you may have even used the lemming metaphor to describe those who blindly follow their leaders to their deaths.

Randall Tracy (Biology) acknowledges this myth. Yet, his quest to find the Southern bog lemming in central Massachusetts was futile until June 3, when one lone lemming was discovered at Broadmeadow Brook.

A lemming is a small hamster-like mammal. Bogs are, or were, its favored habitat. Massachusetts has lost bogs over the last 120 years, Tracy said. But that isn’t the whole story. He suspects a change in the surrounding vegetation has something to do with the decline of lemmings, too.

No one in years has looked at the Southern bog lemming, he said. The Massachusetts Division of Wildlife has no idea of where the lemmings are.

Tracy notes that there’s a historical record of lemmings in Worcester County. But the last one was identified in the 1950s or 60s, he said. Nobody
is looking for these in Massachusetts.

Well, not nobody.

Tracy worked with three undergraduate students to find the Southern bog lemming and the New England cottontail rabbit, a species of special concern, in Massachusetts.

The students have done literature reviews of the habitats of these small mammals. They’ve been working in Broadmeadow Brook, Lancaster town forest and Poutwater Pond, an area between Holden and Sterling, to catalog species.

Tracy built 30 large wooden rabbit traps, which are specially designed for biological research. These supplement 200 aluminum Sherman traps he purchased with a previous mini-grant. The traps are of the Have-a-Heart variety: They are not invasive. Student researchers bait these traps with rolled oats, then set them in the evening.

They also put three cotton balls inside the traps so that an animal can make a nest in there, Tracy said. We don’t want them to suffer hypothermia in the trap.

Come early morning, the students return to the traps to catalog the species and gender of the animals in them. They release the animals once they’ve catalogued them.

Tracy, who is in his fifth year at Worcester State College, is particularly interested in metabolic studies of small mammals. The central questions behind his 2007-08 mini-grant, Quantifying Animal Diversity in Worcester County: Continued Undergraduate Student Research at Worcester State College, are why are these species in decline? And what is it about certain environments that allow these species to live there?

Students are actually able to do science, Tracy said of this project. He recruits student researchers from his ecology and introductory biology classes.

The mini-grant covered the cost of materials for the wooden rabbit traps. Tracy also bought cameras equipped with motion sensors. These are mounted on trees and capture movement of larger animals in the three research areas of central Massachusetts. The cameras have digital cards, which the student researchers download to see which species were in the area.

Tracy secured permits for this field research from the Massachusetts Division of Fish and Wildlife.

These are imperiled species, he said of the lemming and New England cottontail.

Tracy’s research team may have a better chance of learning about the rabbit than the lemming. Although the New England cottontail was once the only rabbit species in New England, it currently is a mere 8 percent of the rabbit population in Massachusetts.

Written by Barbara Zang, Ph.D.

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