Southwest Wildlife Online Tracking Training

The Track & Sign Identification Course


Dr. Mark Elbroch gave a talk at the 2021 North American Wildlife Tracker Conference entitled "Tracker, Biologist, Scientist: Which are you and which do you want to be?" He described a part of a research study on mountain lion kill sites in a section of the talk he called "Who's eating the meat? Coyotes or Red Foxes?" The study was conducted from 2001 through 2016. The researchers identified the presence of coyotes and red foxes primarily from tracks at the kill sites. From 2001 through 2011, red foxes comprised very few of the wildlife kill sites, and coyotes comprised, on average, about 40-50% of the wildlife at kill sites. Observations changed in 2012. Coyotes comprised about 13% of the wildlife at kill sites from 2012 through 2016 and red foxes comprised about 22%.

Dr. Elbroch wondered what caused the change in the relative presence of coyotes and red foxes at the kill sites, so he tested several hypotheses against the presence of red foxes. He considered the carnivore cascade hypothesis first. This hypothesis maintains that wolves will reduce the presence of coyotes in an area. This would increase the presence of red foxes. Dr. Ebroch's analysis concluded that the carnivore cascade hypothesis could account for about 30% of the change in the presence of red foxes at mountain lion kill sites. Dr. Elbroch then considered whether the predator-prey hypothesis could account for some of the change. The predator-prey hypothesis maintains that the abundance of predators is positively related to the abundance of their prey. Dr. Ebroch's analysis concluded that the predator-prey hypothesis could account for 2% of the change in the presence of red foxes at mountain lion kill sites. Finally, Dr. Elbroch considered the observer error hypothesis. Dr. Elbroch examined the relationship between the number of researchers on the project who were certified in track & sign and the presence of red foxes at mountain lion kill sites. He found that the observer-error hypothesis could account for 70% of the change in the presence of red fox.

Southwest Wildlife Online Tracking Training is a distance-learning wildlife track and sign identification training resource. Its mission is to teach track & sign identification to beginning and intermediate students in a way that assists them in achieving Cybertracker certification wipwdthin two years. Applicants who have some involvement in wildlife conservation are given precedence in admission. Examples of such involvement include but are not limited to biological research, wildlife monitoring, public outreach, education, habitat restoration or cleanup, contributing observations or identifications to iNaturalist, or assisting with administration in a conservation organization.

Participation in wildlife conservation may be performed as a professional or as a volunteer. The ideal student is someone who intends to apply track & sign identification to some aspect of wildlife conservation and who has limited access to other tracking education resources. The seven blocks of the course offered by Southwest Wildlife Online Tracking Training focus on species from San Diego County because the principal author of the course materials has thousands of animal track and sign photos from that region. The course teaches a particular analytical approach to track and sign identification that has been used successfully on Cybertracker track & sign evaluations. The approach can be applied equally well to species from any region.

The course consists of approximately 40 weeks of study that is divided into seven blocks. Study materials are downloadable from the online classroom, and most exercises consist of track & sign identification problems based on photographs of tracks or signs. Student solutions to the exercises are posted as comments to the exercise posts. Solving the solutions to the exercises are arrived at through conversations with an assigned instructor.
Sample exercises

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