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NMSU researcher studies impact of humans on animal behavior

Karen Mabry likens her work with mice to following the lives of teenagers as they go off to college, move away and then create their own families far from home. While her analogy helps her connect with students, Mabry's research into animal dispersal patterns could have far-reaching implications for behavioral and evolutionary ecology.


Two women out in field
Biology Professor Karen Mabry, right, and biology student Dana Sanders demonstrate how to use a radio tracking system to study movements of both dispersing juvenile and resident adult brush mice in their natural environment. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

An assistant professor of biology in the New Mexico State University College of Arts and Sciences, Mabry received the prestigious National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development award, known as CAREER. It comes along with $910,000 to fund her research over the next five years as she studies the movements of brush mice to determine how the mice navigate complex social and ecological environments over time.

"As we humans influence natural landscapes, and break them up into smaller and smaller pieces, and put roads through forests, things that might impede movement by animals, these movement processes are becoming more and more important for keeping these animal and plant populations around," Mabry said.

Mabry first became interested in animal movement in the late 1990s as she studied habitat fragmentation and the influences it might have on animal populations. In 1999, she received a bachelor's degree in biological sciences from Clemson University in South Carolina and a master's in ecology from the University of Georgia in 2001. She earned her doctorate in animal behavior in 2007 from the University of California, Davis.

Her work integrates both research and teaching opportunities and is focused on answering three questions: How do pre-existing behavioral differences among individuals influence dispersal movements; how do social interactions with resident adults affect the behavior of juveniles as they move through the landscape; and how does the interplay of social ecological conditions and individual dispersal strategies affect their survival and reproductive success?

Mabry is conducting her research at the Quail Ridge Reserve, a field site in northern California, using state-of-the-art automated animal tracking technology. The remote-sensing technology will enable her to track tagged mice throughout the rural area.

"If you've ever seen people radio tracking lions on the Serengeti on 'Animal Planet,' this is exactly it, just scaled down to a very, very small size," Mabry said. "We put these little radio collars on mice, and then these give off a signal and we can pick it up with a radio receiver and antenna and determine where the mouse is located."

In addition to research, the NSF grant also supports Mabry's teaching and outreach missions. A field course will allow undergraduate students to learn field techniques and use the advanced tracking system to conduct their own research projects and collaborate with students from other universities. Students will share their experiences through various social networking sites.

"We are basically bringing everything full circle using these social networking approaches - the same kinds of social networking approaches that are the concepts for this research on the social aspects of dispersal," she said.

Through a partnership with the Asombro Institute For Science Education, Mabry also is working with children in fourth through sixth grades across Southern New Mexico, teaching them how to use the tracking technology. These programs will align with state standards in New Mexico and Texas to fit within the curriculum for elementary teachers.

"I think one of the really nice things about this award is that it not only supports research but it also recognizes your teaching efforts and activities because that really is what we do as faculty," Mabry said. "We do research and we teach and both of these are important parts of our job."