Friday, March 15, 2024

FIF 2023 Research Grant to Investigate Individual Island Fox Impact

FIF awarded a second Research Grant in 2023 to Juliann Schamel, NPS biologist and graduate student in Ecology and Conservation at University of Aberdeen, Scotland...

Juliann Schamel in the field with island fox

and Dr. Alexandria DeCandia, biology professor at Georgetown University...

Dr. Alexandria DeCandia

for their project: From Microbes to Habitats: How Individual Fox Foraging Behavior Cascades Through an Ecosystem.

Schamel and De Candia are combining their respective work in stable isotope diet analysis and microbiome research to investigate the specific interconnections between 15 male island foxes and the island ecosystem. The team says, "Recent research has revealed that the island fox displays a high level of individual specialization, from their diet, to activity patterns, to the germination rate of scat-dispersed native seeds." This work builds on stable isotope diet analysis that Schamel presented at the Channel Island Symposium that demonstrated that diet specialization is occurring on Santa Rosa Island

GPS radio collar deployed on Santa Rosa Island

The 15 island foxes to be studied were part of a territory range investigation monitoring island fox movement with GPS radio collars by FIF 2021 Research Grant recipient Katie Elder. The final collection of data occurred in December 2023 when the island foxes were recaptured and their GPS collars removed.

Combining specific daily movement data (over the course of a year) with stable isotope diet data from individual whisker samples and microbiome swabs of gut microfloral offers a unique window into the lives of these individual island foxes. 

Microbiome sample swabs

It's easy to assume that island foxes, as a species, have a specifically defined relationship with plants and animals in the island ecosystem. However, Schamel's island fox dietary data has revealed a great deal of individualism in dietary choice, especially when resources are abundant. Some island foxes are eating beach foods, some are fruit specialists, others prey predominantly on deer mice.

Island fox whisker sample being collected

This investigation will try to reveal "a more holistic understanding of island foxes," DeCandia says. "[H]ost-associated microbes are critical to ... digestion and immunity,... By linking gut microbial communities with individual diet, movement, and activity patterns, we can begin to untangle the eco-evolutionary factors shaping these island hosts, their microbes, and the ecosystem in which they live."

Comparing microbiome of island fox and island spotted skunk, A. DeCandia

Friends of the Island Fox is proud to invest in this cutting-edge, multidisciplinary scientific investigation that brings together academic and governmental organizations and investigators. Whisker samples will be processed and analyzed by Julianne Schamel and Seth Newsome at the Center for Stable Isotopes at the University of New Mexico. DNA from microbiome swabs will be extracted by Alexandria DeCandia at the Center for Conservation Genomics at the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. Undergraduate researchers at Georgetown University, University of New Mexico, and California State University Channel Islands will actively participate in sample collection, laboratory preparation, data analysis and interpretation, and co-authorship of findings. 

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Applications for FIF's 2024 Research Grant 

will be available March 22