Since 2018, I have been working primarily on wild carnivores to address questions related to animal psychology, behavioural adaptability, and human’s connection with nature. This work has morphed into two different case studies to address each of these research themes.
CASE STUDY 1:
THE BRITISH CARNIVORE PROJECT
Since 2021, my team and I have been running the British Carnivore Project, an on-going programme aiming to understand the impact of environmental changes, such as climate and urbanisation, on the behaviour and cognition of wild carnivores in the UK, and how this, in turn, shapes human attitudes and conflict towards these animals. Our primary study species include red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) and European badgers (Meles meles) from over 300 urban and rural locations throughout England, Scotland and Wales, and pine martens (Martes martes) throughout the Scottish Highlands.
BCP is funded by grants from the UKRI’s Natural Environment Research Council, the University of Hull, and the EU Social Plus Fund. The programme includes a network of staff and students from the University of Hull, and over 400 external stakeholders, including members of the public and staff from major British organisations such as The Wildlife Trusts, The Land Trust, Forestry England, Forestry & Land Scotland, and the National Trust. We also work with staff and students from other universities, including the University of Stirling, Lincoln, Edinburgh, and Glasgow.
In just a few short years since the establishment of BCP, our work is already making a significant societal impact, from government consultations on wild animal welfare to generating greater public awareness about important environmental issues through major global media coverage from over 410 television, radio, and newspaper outlets throughout the UK and beyond, including the BBC, The Times, The Guardian, ITV, and Sky News. For these reasons, BCP was nominated in 2023 for three Knowledge Exchange Awards at the University of Hull and is set to become an impact case study for the 2028 Research Excellence Framework (an impact evaluation of British Higher Education Institutions).
Check out BCP’s most recent OUTPUT HERE, which investigated the impact of urbanisation on bold and innovative behaviour in wild red foxes throughout Great Britain.
Some of our work has also been highlighted on BBC’s Winterwatch television series, which is a BAFTA award-winning programme viewed by millions of people! WATCH HERE
Why British carnivores?
British carnivores, like other animals throughout the world, possess a wide range of adaptations to their environment. Foxes, for example, have evolved relatively large brains and are one of the most widely distributed carnivorans on the planet. European badgers, by contrast, live in the same areas as foxes throughout Europe and parts of Asia, but have relatively smaller brains and are not as adaptable in terms of their geographic distribution. British Carnivores also have an interesting relationship with people: On the one hand, studies show they are among the most beloved mammals in the UK. On the other hand, they have a long and complex history of being persecuted as “pests”. Thus, comparisons between British carnivores provide an opportunity to study the relationships between animal psychology, behavioural adaptability, and public perception of species living in the same geographic location. Such research can be applied to a wider global context using ecological modelling, public engagement, and policy change to promote coexistence between wildlife and people.
THE IMPACT OF URBANISATION ON HUMAN-CARNIVORE COEXISTENCE:
In a recent study, now published in the journal Animal Behaviour (OUTPUT HERE), we were the first team of scientists to objectively test on a large geographic scale whether urbanisation is making wild red foxes bolder and more innovative due to the challenges they face from ‘life in the city’, and how this might be impacting human-fox coexistence within British cities. One source of conflict we were particularly interested in exploring was the popular belief that urban foxes are prolific bin raiders, since this is often associated with negative public attitudes and tolerance towards these animals.
Our study found that urban foxes were indeed more likely to behave bolder than rural populations in terms of their willingness to physically touch the puzzles. However, aside from perhaps specific populations included in our study (e.g., London), most urban foxes were not more motivated to try to gain access to the rewards inside. When we left food on the ground without any puzzle, all foxes – regardless of location – willingly ate the free food.
The lack of persistence from most foxes, even for puzzles containing large rewards (90 dog biscuits), contradicts the notion that urban foxes (in general) regularly exploit another type of puzzle that humans leave out – household waste bins. While of course some foxes do indeed raid bins, our experimental study is consistent with findings from other published studies on fox diet, direct observations of urban foxes, and household surveys, all of which indicate that the notion of foxes as prolific bin raiders is not typical of the species. Instead, other factors beyond boldness may lead some foxes to rummage through bins, such as when containers have no lids or when they lack barriers to block access, which we are investigating in follow-up studies.
We believe our findings illustrate the importance of having objective data to guide public perceptions about a species as their portrayal within popular culture may not always be rooted in reality. In terms of what this all means for human-fox coexistence, foxes are one of the most widespread carnivores on the planet, and so as global urbanisation continues, it is crucial that people understand how to avoid conflict with these animals. Within the UK, for example, foxes are a beloved and ecologically important part of urban green spaces, and therefore represent an important “flagship” for human-nature relationships within our cities. Public attitudes and conflict could change, however, if foxes continue to become bolder, and so future management needs to balance both positive and negative human-fox interactions within neighbourhoods so that both can coexist. By simply disposing of our waste properly, for example, we can try to discourage many foxes from hanging around our bins.
We were recently invited to write a piece for The Conversation, where we elaborated on these points in further detail (SEE HERE).
To watch videos of some of the foxes that interacted with our puzzle feeders, CLICK HERE.
CASE STUDY 2:
THE RACCOON AND OPOSSUM COMPARATIVE COGNITION PROJECT
Since 2018, my team and I have been running the Raccoon & Opossum Comparative Cognition (ROCC) Project, an on-going programme aiming to understand the behaviour and cognition of wild raccoons (Procyon lotor) and Virginia opossums (Didelphis virginiana).
Our primary field site is the Croatan National Forest (SEE HERE) and the surrounding areas along the coast of North Carolina. We also work in the William B Umstead State Park (SEE HERE) and other areas within and around Raleigh, the capital of North Carolina. To help us complete this research, we work with staff from the US Forest Service and National Park Service, as well as researchers and students from North Carolina State University and the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences.
In Summer 2022, National Geographic visited us in Umstead State Park to do a photoshoot and interview for one of our current projects on population differences in wild raccoon innovation and behavioural decision-making, which appeared in their July online issue (SEE HERE).
Why raccoons and opossums?
Carnivorans and marsupials represent major branches of the animal kingdom, but studies on their cognition and personality are rare, particularly in the wild, compared to well-studied taxa like primates and birds. Raccoons are a carnivoran and possess many physical, cognitive, and behavioral characteristics found in intelligent species like primates (e.g., manually dextrous hands, relatively large brains, and social networks), but surprisingly few studies have examined the exact nature and breadth of their cognitive abilities for comparison. Fewer studies have been conducted on opossums despite being the only American marsupial north of Mexico, and hence, an important facet to compare with placental mammals (including raccoons). Because raccoons and opossums co-exist throughout North America, it provides a unique opportunity to study both species in the same study areas.
We recently published our first research paper from the ROCC programme, which was a study on the exploratory behaviour and spontaneous tool-using abilities of wild raccoons from the Croatan National Forest (SEE HERE).