Thomas and Klein
Terence Thomas and Amy Klein

Whether you’ve ever been startled by some late-night shuffling in a trash can on campus, or a scratching in the bushes by the bus stop, there’s a good chance you’ve spied a pair of glowing eyes in the twilight. Nighttime, after all, invites a host of critters into the open, and raccoons are one of the more familiar sightings for after-hours visitors.

But even if bumping into raccoons seems inevitable, are these encounters totally random? What do we really know about the habits of these nocturnal nibblers? Where are they foraging, and what are they finding? More importantly, are there statistical correlations between their presence and certain features of the landscape?

This winter, three seniors in the Environmental Science and Resource Management (ESRM) program—Terence Thomas, Amy Klein and Ben Krabill—hope to shed some light on these questions.

Do you recognize this guy?

“You see raccoons all the time on campus,” says Thomas, “but we don’t know much about them—what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it.”

In search of some answers, they applied for and received a $250 Capstone Project Grant from the Director’s Office to help purchase camera equipment and other supplies for their senior project. They’re still fine-tuning their proposal, but the general plan is to use motion-sensor cameras to capture images of raccoons at night.

For 25 nights during the winter quarter, they’ll set up three cameras at different locations each night, from 9 p.m. to 8 a.m., providing three data samples every day.  As they sift through the collected images, says Klein, they’ll assess each camera site and evaluate factors such as nearby vegetation, distance to garbage cans or a water source.

They’re looking to identify a relationship between the physical environment on campus and raccoon distribution. “We’ll be very excited,” says Thomas, “if we collect strong statistical evidence that there are major features of the landscape that impact why raccoons are found in certain areas.”

Test runs with the cameras have already produced multiple sightings.

Their findings have potential to help in the future management of raccoons on campus, says Aaron Wirsing, a professor of wildlife ecology at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, who is advising the three students on the project. “By photographically documenting raccoons all across campus, their project should better our understanding of how this species uses urban environments, how certain human activities might attract raccoons, and how we might change our behavior to mitigate human-raccoon conflict.”

So, depending on the results of their investigation, the next time you stumble across a raccoon on campus, you might know why!

About the Grant

ESRM Senior Capstone students are encouraged to apply for Director’s Office financial support to defray costs incurred to complete their ESRM capstone. Funds are at three levels—$50, $150 and $250—and are awarded in Autumn, Winter or Spring quarters. Students must be registered for a capstone course (ESRM 494, 495 or 496) during the quarter of the award. The School Curriculum Committee will allocate the funds. Only one award is allocated per undergraduate student. The deadline is the second Friday of each quarter, and you will be notified of your award no later than the fourth week of the quarter. Learn how to apply for your own grant (login required).

Photo of Thomas and Klein © SEFS; raccoon images courtesy of Klein, Krabill and Thomas.