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Have you ever wondered what kind of research goes on at Bryn Athyn College? To find out, just strike up a conversation with the biology faculty. Dr. Eugene Potapov and alumnus Dr. Fredrik (Figge) Bryntesson work with faculty Dr. Sherri Cooper, and Dr. Allen Bedford to head up a hands-on study of the deer populations in the Pennypack Ecological Restoration Trust, adjacent to the College campus. In the past several years, they and alumni Bracken Brown, Dallas Hendricks, Laird Klippenstein and Alex Rotla, and current student Michael Rogers have captured deer, donned them with GPS collars, and tracked and analyzed their behavior. They've kept 2-4 deer monitored for about 3 months at a time, enabling the deer study project to collect data on over 30 individual deer and publish some interesting observations.
Since the project began several years ago, it has undergone several shifts in focus and in execution. The process of trapping the deer, for instance, has changed dramatically. The team used to use a drop trap which involved sitting in a blind (such as Eugene's car) until a deer walked in the trap then pulled the lever to trigger the trap. A different contraption is in use now: a live camera focused on a cage sounds an alarm on Eugene's computer when it senses motion caused by a deer entering the cage. This alarm alerts him to the deer's presence—often by waking him up in the middle of the night—and he decides whether or not to trap it. If the deer is large enough to be useful for the study (deer that are too small may not fit the collar and are more likely to get hit by a car) and is not one that has already been caught, Eugene remotely moves the camera which triggers a mechanism that shuts the door on the cage. He then calls the others involved in the project and they drive to the site to collar the deer.
Though trapping is much more efficient using this method, involving less time both in waiting for the deer and in attaching the collar, Figge says that students miss the time spent waiting in the blind. The long hours were perfect for hanging out with their teachers and they enjoyed getting to know them outside of classes. But despite this new method of trapping, the researchers still have opportunities to recount their victories together. After successfully trapping a deer, for example, the trappers typically celebrate together with a pizza at Figge's apartment where Figge's daughter names the deer—usually after a friend, babysitter or pet.
The focus of the project has also changed over time. A study presented a few years ago mapped the locations of the deer in relation to Pennypack Restoration plots, noting that cleared areas and obvious presence of humans deters deer from coming near these plots. With this information the Pennypack Ecological Restoration Trust can continue to learn how to manage deer on their lands. Now they look at a broader scope of interrelationships between deer and their domain both within and outside the Pennypack Trust, and evaluate how they interact with people, hunters, and roads.
The most recent study, conducted by Bracken in his senior year at Bryn Athyn College, monitored the effects of moonlight on deer behavior. By tracking the deer with respect to the amount of moonlight visible on a given night, he discovered that deer are less likely to be in the woods if the moon is bright and postulated that this is because the deer prefer to be in open spaces where predators are more easily visible.
Altogether the Bryn Athyn Deer Study has presented seven posters at various conferences and two oral presentations, one by Bracken and one by Eugene. Bryn Athyn College is unique for including students in the presentation process, involving them both in creation and presentation of the posters. There are three peer-reviewed articles that have been accepted for publication, and in April 2012, the group will present a poster at the conference of the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the Ecological Society of America. Further projects such as a vegetation survey and a study of the effects of human activity on deer movement are being considered and the Bryn Athyn Deer Study is always seeking interested and hard-working students to take part in the study.