May 2020 Student of the Month – Emma Cartledge
PhD Research at University of Liverpool
I am currently in the second year of my PhD, studying the conservation ecology of reintroduced hazel dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius) populations. My research group, Mammalian Behaviour and Evolution (MBE), is based at the University of Liverpool. Our research at MBE focuses on the behaviour, ecology, conservation and welfare of a diverse range of mammal species – from wood mice to elephants! I also have the pleasure of working with some fantastic collaborators and my CASE partner, the Cheshire Wildlife Trust.
My species of interest is the hazel dormouse (arguably the most charming mammal this side of the Serengeti), which is found throughout Europe and into Asia Minor. The species is of conservation concern due to a loss of suitable habitat and changes in woodland management practices. In the UK, dormouse populations declined by 72% between 1993 and 2014 (Goodwin et al., 2017) and have been lost from over half of their historical range (Bright & Morris, 1996; Hurrell & McIntosh, 1984). As a result, the species is highly protected both within the UK and the EU. If you are interested in reading some more on the background of the dormouse, you might want to check out the February blog entry! Fellow dormouse researcher, Ellie, gave a great introduction to the species and the main threats they face. So I won’t reiterate much more of the background of the hazel dormouse in this blog, but I will discuss my work in particular and share some of my own experiences of research during the coronavirus lockdown.
Usually, you can either find me in the Cheshire woodlands or in an office on the Wirral. Either way, my main aim is to understand why some dormouse reintroductions are more successful than others. There have been 30 reintroductions across the UK, which are organised by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES). At each site, licenced handlers monitor specialised dormouse nest boxes at least twice per year: once just after hibernation and once after the breeding season. Data is collected on the number of animals present, as well as individual information on sex, age, breeding condition and weight. I am lucky enough to have access to this dataset and I’m just beginning to tease apart what makes a reintroduction site successful. The results will be shared in due course!
I have also done some work on non-invasive dormouse monitoring techniques, such as nest searches, nut hunts and footprint tunnels. The classic dormouse nest search and nut hunt are possible, due to dormice having distinctive woven nests and a particular pattern of tooth marks left behind on hazelnuts. However, these methods can be very time intensive and likely to provide false negatives. Footprint tunnels, which are commonly used in hedgehog surveys, have recently been developed for dormice, as they have characteristic foot pad patterns. These are something you can easily create at home, if you want to see what small mammals are visiting your garden! Using molecular techniques and mass spectrometry, I am planning to develop some new methods for dormouse monitoring (watch this space!).
My research life in a covid-19 lockdown
With dormice awakening from hibernation and fieldwork schedules being set, March also brought the coronavirus lockdown to the UK. This also meant that my lab work, which was just about to start, needed to be put on hold. I’m sure many of you can empathise with the feeling that potential samples and datasets are slipping away! It’s a relief now that the infection rate seems to be slowing and there are murmurings of labs and fieldwork recommencing, with social distancing measures in place. After two months of limited face-to-face communication (but many Zoom meetings!), I think it’s going to feel very odd to start seeing people again, even at a safe distance.
In the meantime, I have tried to keep some routine while working from home and have regular lab meetings, virtual coffee breaks and chats with my supervisor, which helps to structure my work time. I am very fortunate, that I have been able to set up a workspace at home, meaning I have been able to carve out some time for work. By no means does this mean I can completely focus all through the week, but I feel that this time has given me the opportunity to take stock of the progress of my PhD and allow me to use productive time for two main projects. Luckily, my population analysis lends itself well to home working and I am also in the process of writing a review.
Unfortunately, the months of lockdown mean I have been unable to collect some samples for my lab work. With indications of lab work and fieldwork carefully resuming in the next few weeks, I’m hoping I can gather enough samples for my work. Though, if anyone has access to faecal samples of yellow-necked mice or hazel dormice, please get in touch!
I’d like to say thank you to my brilliant supervisors at MBE and Cheshire Wildlife Trust, as well as to my research group for continued advice and support. Also thank you to NERC, the ACCE DTP and Cheshire Wildlife Trust for providing funding. Thanks to PTES for sharing reintroduction data and to volunteers at the Cheshire Wildlife Trust, who have given many hours of their time to help with this project.
If you’re interested in my work, please follow me on Twitter (@EL_Cartledge) or check out the North West Dormouse Partnership blog. Also, over the summer, look out for my interview in the first series of the Humans Doing Science podcast (@humansdoscience) to find out more about footprint tunnels, reintroductions and how I got into conservation. Thanks for reading my blog post – I hope you all stay safe and manage to resume a more normal research life as soon as covid allows. Oh and I suggest googling ‘snoring dormouse’…you won’t regret it!
Goodwin, C. E. D., Hodgson, D. J., Al-Fulaij, N., Bailey, S., Langton, S., & Mcdonald, R. A. (2017). Voluntary recording scheme reveals ongoing decline in the United Kingdom hazel dormouse Muscardinus avellanarius population. Mammal Review, 47(3), 183– 197. https://doi.org/10.1111/mam.12091
Bright, P. W., & Morris, P. A. (1996). Why are Dormice rare? a case study in conservation biology. Mammal Review, 26(4), 157–187. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.13652907.1996.tb00151.x
Hurrell, E., & McIntosh, G. (1984). Mammal Society dormouse survey, January 1975-April 1979. Mammal Review, 14(1), 1–18. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.13652907.1984.tb00334.x