Student Stories: Wildlife major helps with research on endangered prairie dogs

Getting up before dawn never appealed to Penn State senior Elyse McMahon, but last summer it was exactly what she wanted to be doing. From June to August, her days began early with trapping and handling endangered Utah prairie dogs for data collection.

The wildlife and fisheries science major headed west to be part of a study to determine if a new type of bait containing a trial vaccine could help eliminate the sylvatic plague in prairie dogs. Students collected data that U.S. Geological Survey employees analyzed.

Once the prairie dogs consumed the baits and were captured in the traps, students processed them, which included tagging, weighing, combing for fleas, measuring feet, and taking blood and hair samples.

It was during this processing that McMahon got her first chance to handle a Utah prairie dog -- a memorable experience for a couple of reasons. Not only did the animal take a nice chunk out of her finger as she positioned her hands to cradle it, but "I still held on, so I was proud of myself for that," she said.

With the knowledge and experience that McMahon brought with her from her classes, the process was second nature. "I had experience trapping and handling animals from the work I did on my thesis," she said. "So I was really comfortable in that aspect, and knowledge from my classes about trapping and recapture rates was also helpful."

McMahon was experienced in working with other people in school projects and activities. "I was at ease and ready to work with a bunch of people who were from all kinds of backgrounds," she said. "We could get the job done and have fun at the same time."

With numerous four-day breaks in their schedule, the group spent time at nearby parks. Before she left Utah, McMahon enjoyed the sights at Arches, Capital Reef, Zion and Bryce national parks.

Growing up on 29 acres of forested land in Erie, Pa., and participating in an environmental group in high school motivated McMahon to study wildlife science at Penn State. While doing this research work in Utah, she realized that it was what she wanted to do with her life and in her career.

"I want to make a difference with endangered species -- with managing other populations or focusing on diseases that are affecting any species of wild animal," she said.

Learn about the wildlife and fisheries science major.

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Last Updated April 18, 2014