Did you know that collecting wolf howls on an audio recorder in Yellowstone National Park is in someone’s job description? Talk about a cool job!
For research assistant Amanda Emmel, it’s all in a typical day’s work. She works with Dr. Waller, a professor at Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana. Together, they study predator cognition and communication, so the work involves recording vocalizations by a variety of predator species that hunt cooperatively – mostly wolves, dolphins, and coyotes. To summarize, Amanda studies animals!
Not many people can say their favorite animal is a raccoon, but Amanda describes this nighttime trashcan raider as hilariously clever and able to outwit people that often consider them ‘vermin’. “Their curiosity and humor brings me joy,” she says of her experience working with them at a wildlife hospital. “They always wanted to mess with everything – knock over trash cans, untie your shoelaces, steal your broom.”
Amanda’s day starts by waking up early, as wildlife are often more active at dawn and dusk. Next she’s traveling to a field site, usually on foot and sometimes with a vehicle, to collect data firsthand by recording observations of the habitat and the animals. Other times she’s maintaining another data collection system, such as changing batteries in the audio recorders or a series of motion-sensing cameras. No two days are alike.
Amanda took a variety of classes, from Human-Wildlife Conflict and Intro to GIS Software to Field Methods, and specific classes on Mammals, Birds, and Fish, where she had to learn to identify all of the California birds by sight and sound. She also knows how to tell mammal species apart by their skulls. “I decided to work with animals because I’ve always been fascinated by other creatures. At first I thought about being a veterinarian, but my love for being outdoors led me to wildlife biology.”
Since childhood, Amanda’s loved the outdoors, and fortunately she has had the opportunity to follow her passion and turn it into a career. “I loved turning over logs looking for newts and trying to catch crabs as a kid, and I still love exploring and observing wild animals.”
Amanda’s next project involves traveling to Long Beach, California to observe dolphins from a boat, which will be a novel research environment for her. Last summer, while working on a US Geological Survey project, she worked with the American Pika to see how their populations are surviving in the face of climate change.
American Pika are a high elevation species that, instead of hibernating, spend the summer months collecting and storing vegetation in their rocky habitat to munch on beneath the winter snow. In 2010, scientists petitioned for the American Pika to be placed on the Endangered Species Act, but there was not enough evidence to list them, so Amanda was happy to be working to collect evidence to prove their vulnerability.
She says, “My work involved traveling to random historical sites where [the American Pika] had been seen in the past –- sometimes a hundred years ago or prior, to see whether they were still there. Only two somewhat-low elevation sites were void of Pika, and we found evidence of them having been there. We discovered that further south in the US, the populations are in deep trouble.”