Schultz investigates gray fox diets with Dr. Reding

This past summer, a number of biology students got the opportunity to immerse themselves in research while working with Luther Biology professors. One of these students was Shannon Schultz, who worked with Dr. Dawn Reding to investigate the diets of gray foxes.

Reding and Schultz worked with the Indiana DNR and Wildlife Ecology Institute to determine what gray foxes (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) were eating. Gray fox populations are currently on the decline in the Midwest. While habitat fragmentation, disease, and competition from coyotes might all play a role, it is currently unclear what is causing their decline. By finding out what food sources gray foxes rely on, steps can be taken to make sure that shortages of these foods are not driving the decline of the gray foxes. 

To find out what foxes were eating, Schultz and Reding used a technique called diet metabarcoding. They took samples from the digestive tracts of deceased gray foxes, extracted all the DNA from the sample, and compared particular sequences from their sample to genetic databases to identify what was represented in the sample. Ultimately, they found that Indiana gray foxes eat lots of persimmons in the fall, as well as small mammals, insects, and grasses. 

Since this was the start of this research project, Schultz helped Reding identify the best techniques to prepare the digestive samples for analysis. Since there was no established procedure for them to follow, Schultz devoted a lot of time to troubleshooting procedures and trying new techniques, all of which impacted the final result. 

Before this research experience, Schultz wasn’t aware how hard it was to develop new techniques since she had never seen that sort of trial and error in her classes. Over the course of the project, Schultz gained confidence and independence in the lab and became more comfortable with uncertainty. 

Schultz said that her chemistry and genetics classes both helped her learn how to quickly absorb new lab techniques and felt that this helped prepare her for this summer research experience. When asked what non-science course prepared her the most, she said that Cultural Anthropology helped her to approach this project “from a cultural standpoint, versus just analytical” and made her feel that she was really studying the culture of gray foxes.

Both Reding and Schultz had advice for students considering a summer research experience, Reding said that students can still learn a lot from doing a summer research project, “even if you don’t do that project for your career”. Learning new tools and skills is essential to become a well-rounded scientist, and a summer research experience could be a great way to do that. 

Schultz said that a student considering summer research should “keep (their) mind open and stay curious”. Initially, Schultz was not interested in wildlife biology. However, after taking a Marine Biology course and having to do a presentation on birds, Shannon found a bird that she enjoyed learning about and the project became much more interesting. Most importantly, Schultz says that students shouldn’t be afraid to “talk to (their) local prof” about summer research opportunities in their lab.

Shannon Schultz is removing the contents from a gray fox stomach sample and placing it in a sterilized blender to homogenize the material so that she can get a well-mixed subsample from which to extract DNA.