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Team Studies How to Protect and Respect Campus Critters

By: Jessica Hurtado

A couple of semesters ago at Texas A&M University – San Antonio, I was walking to my car along the sidewalk parking on University Way, and I was looking at the landscape behind the wire fence when I spotted something, looking at me, camouflaged among the grass and trees. I took a good look at it and assumed that it was a coyote: grayish light brown, medium size and a small head, and not a dog behind the fence. I took my phone out and took a picture and video of it because I found it interesting.

It isn’t surprising that the A&M- San Antonio campus, which sits on 700 rustic acres, is surrounded by wildlife.Two professors are working to share as much information as possible with administrators so they can plan to protect wildlife as the campus grows.

According to Dr. Rodolfo Valdez, assistant professor of biology, there are a dozen primary animals in South San Antonio. A&M – San Antonio has about eight of them.

There’s a small deer population, due to over hunting that isn’t managed properly, according to Valdez. Surprisingly we have bobcats, that are extremely shy. There’s also coyotes and a small population of foxes seen around as well as skunks, armadillos and cottontail rabbits.

Valdez conducted  research on feral hogs to understand their behavior due to the development of the university. Feral hogs are omnivores, and there’s certain fruit trees, that we have, that they like to eat as well as grubs. What they’ll do is look for soil in areas that are grassy and that’s where they find grubs. As they forage with their snouts, the digging causes damage. If the damage done is in the university’s perimeter, it gets repaired. The university has hired trappers to get rid of them. Once you trap them in one place they’ll relocate, which makes it difficult for trappers.

Feral hogs will move around depending on the time of the year and where the food sources are.

“I focus on water sources just because I know where I’ve found them and seen them. I see their scabs, their feces, their tracks and you can also see areas where they’ve been spending the evening and nights,” said Valdez. “So, if you track periodically you can tell where most likely they’ll be.”

Feral hogs like to wallow,  so they look for one of the many water resources that gets muddy to allow a layer of mud to cover themselves. Once the mud dries it traps all the parasites and when the dust sheds  it helps remove ticks and insects. There’s a wallow pond, located on the northeast side of campus close to the dorms. There are also other water resources located on the east side of the campus near the train tracks, and one further south, where they might go for water, according to Valdez’s studies.

Valdez explained that near water sources there are paths that have been created by wildlife; as they travel you can see their paws or tracks. This way he selected some areas where there would likely be animal activity and placed his trail cameras, that detect movement and take pictures.

“In the far south from here there’s a lot of coyote and hog activity and we have found evidence that supports that the coyotes are actually hunting the hogs. We have a situation where we found multiple tracks and you can see the tracks of the coyotes and the hogs intersecting,” said Valdez. “We have photos that show the animals in action chasing each other out.”

Therefore, coyotes are helping with the feral hog population and to control that there must be a predator that’s hunting them, making the coyotes an extraordinary alternative.

Marissa Narvaez, senior majoring in biology and vice president of the biology club, stays late every day at the university and has seen feral hogs and coyotes. Narvaez said that as long as they don’t hurt her or anyone else she’s okay with animals around campus.  

Professor Sara Weaver, biology lecturer, teaches ornithology, the study of birds, has field trips on campus to teach students about detection and identification of the bird species that are on campus and the various habitats that are out there.

The bird species vary. There are birds that are well adapted to human development and changes and nest on campus buildings. The birds that don’t handle development are found away from campus where they have adapted using the native habitats, such as the thorn scrub. There’s also grassland species that can be found out in the open areas and on campus like the sparrows and meadowlark. Some of the species that are tied with water resources like the waterfowls and shorebirds, can be found on the ponds that are found on campus, depending on the location.

The house finch, great-tailed grackle and some swallows are a few of the birds that are adapted to human development and changes.

“The species that do better on campus with disturbance will increase in number because they’ll have an increase in that habitat, so we’ll see more,” said Weaver.

As the campus continues to expand some of the thorn scrub areas and habitats will be removed and replaced by buildings and parking lots. So, the native species that are currently in these locations, the ones that don’t do well with disturbance, will decrease because their habitat will be disintegrated and removed.

Weaver and Valdez are working together with the university to preserve some of the native habitats, so they can try to maintain the diversity.

“We think its beneficial for the students to have these native species around. It’s almost therapeutic for some and important for the wildlife as well that they have these habitats,” said Weaver. “Dr. Valdez  has been working to try to keep a corridor on the east side of campus because we have some proximity to Mitchell Lake Audubon Center, which is not far from here and that land is protected.”

To the east and south of the university there are some water resources that would be important for the campus to preserve like some of the thorn scrubs and habitats so it can provide for the native species, and make a connection with the protected areas.

Mexican free-tailed bats can be found on campus which are unique to the south area. These bats are very adaptable and utilize buildings, bridges and caves but are mainly found inside buildings roosting, during the spring and summer when it’s breeding season.

Students, when asked if they have encountered any animals on campus, said their main concerns are getting hurt if they encounter one. “I am wary about the feral hogs because I’ve heard they’re malicious, so they could be dangerous,” said Christina Santos, junior sociology major.

It is advised that students keep their distance from these wild animals, if they encounter them, even though they’re not interested in people. It’s for human and wildlife safety.

The message is to make a campus where students respect and appreciate nature.