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Undergraduates study wildlife in Red Butte Canyon with camera traps

Elk surrounded by fall foliage in Red Butte Canyon

Jan. 26, 2015—Mountain lions, moose and bears, oh my! In the University of Utah’s own backyard lies Red Butte Canyon, the most pristine ecosystem along Utah’s Wasatch Front filled with a variety of wildlife species. Managed by the U.S. Forest Service and designated as a Research Natural Area, Red Butte is restricted to all except those who use the area for scientific studies. Members of the U’s Biodiversity and Conservation Ecology Lab are some of those who have exclusive access to study the area and the animals in it.

University of Utah professor Çağan Şekercioğlu (pronounced Cha-awn Shay-care-gee-oh-loo) heads a lab that conducts field research all over the world, including Turkey, Ethiopia and Costa Rica. His projects all have one common goal: to study how humans and other species interact.

Inspired by the use of camera traps in his project in eastern Turkey and fueled with a desire to conduct research locally, Şekercioğlu purchased three camera traps for use in Red Butte Canyon in 2012. Supported by crowdsourcing and a grant from the Friends of Red Butte Creek, the project has expanded to 17 cameras that survey the mammals of Red Butte Canyon in a systematic grid. Sekercioglu’s efforts to involve the public in science and share his findings through social media ( has won him the U’s Inaugural Citizen Science Award.

“The U is very fortunate to have on its doorstep this spectacular natural canyon with mountain lions, elk, black bears and other wildlife.” said Şekercioğlu. “As an undergrad at Harvard, I was dying to get field experience, but we had nothing like this Research Natural Area, which (along with the U’s Rio Mesa Station) was a factor in my becoming a professor at the U. I set up my lab’s Red Butte bird banding and camera trapping projects especially with the U students in mind, so that they can gain priceless ecological research experience that I craved as a student.”

“Red Butte is unique for its protected status,” said Mark Chynoweth, a doctoral candidate in Şekercioğlu’s lab. “Because of this, any data we collect on species density there can be used as a baseline for other canyons along the Wasatch Front that have been subjected to human activity.”

Training the next generation of scientists

More than two dozen undergraduates have been involved in the lab’s research since 2010 and a dozen are currently working on projects. In addition to collecting data from Red Butte to use as a control for future studies, Şekercioğlu and Chynoweth saw the camera traps as an opportunity for undergraduate students to gain field experience.

Senior biology major Blake Hethmon was first in line to volunteer for the new project. With guidance from Chynoweth, the two successfully applied for a grant from the Friends of Red Butte Creek, a group within the U’s Global Change and Sustainability Center, which aims to improve understanding of the Red Butte Creek system and the impact human activity might have on it. With the grant, the lab purchased five additional camera traps to conduct more extensive research.

But they didn’t stop there. Urged by Chynoweth, Hethmon and fellow undergraduate lab member Erin Gamertsfelder got on, a crowdsourcing website specifically for budding scientific projects, and raised $3,000. The lab was then able to buy nine additional cameras, bringing the total number of cameras to 17.

Hethmon said the crowdsourcing campaign taught him a lot about science’s often overlooked, but necessary administrative and fundraising component.

“A large part of research is not just the actual science, but learning how to get funding, how to organize and how to communicate your work to people in a way that is both informative and attractive. The lab taught me all of that and so much more,” said Hethmon.

Benefits beyond the field: from the canyon to a career

Given the autonomy to craft their own study designs and implement them in the field, undergraduates in Şekercioğlu’s lab gain invaluable experience that will aid them in their future endeavors.

“I have a better grasp on how research labs work, and I have a deeper understanding of the many concepts I learn in school because they are so applicable to what I have been doing in the lab,” said Austin Green, a junior biology major and member of the Honors College.

David Abolnik, another undergraduate researcher in the lab, agreed. “Undergraduate research has taught me a hands-on approach to critical thinking,” he said. “It has also given me experience with working in groups and independently motivating myself to accomplish goals.”

Abolnik, a biology major who will attend veterinary school after graduation this spring, counts the project as one of the most integral components of his education. “The work I’ve done in this lab has shaped my entire education and my career goals,” he said.

Involvement in the lab gave Gamertsfelder a clearer vision of her future goals and helped her grow professionally.

“Mark and the three other graduate students in the lab are phenomenal mentors,” Gamertsfelder said. “They’ve all been in our shoes and guide us through things we don’t learn in the classroom like how to network and how to put together a compelling internship application.”

The professional development mentoring has paid off for many members of the lab. Gamertsfelder now works part time for a U professor selecting photos for the lab to increase understanding of the canyon’s history and Hethmon spent last summer as a Benthic Ecology Intern in the Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium in Sarasota, Florida. 

Providing opportunities in the future

Looking ahead as the seasoned student researchers graduate, Chynoweth hopes the project will continue for as long as possible.

“Our primary goal is to continue providing undergraduates with the opportunity to conduct independent research and learn the flow of science through a more hands-on approach,” said Chynoweth.

Green, who is conducting the research for his honors thesis, looks forward to taking on more responsibility as his peers graduate.  In addition to maintaining the cameras, Green will begin coordinating volunteers and training them to use the lab’s database, as well as analyzing results.

“I love the work I do for the lab, and I cannot imagine myself doing anything else at this point,” said Green.

“To me, this is the ultimate job to have. I feel like I have made a difference for the better since I have worked in this lab. There is no better benefit than that.”

To see more wildlife photos from the Şekercioğlu lab, check out their instagram.