WSU Student Researches Pygmy Rabbits and Their Habitat

OGDEN, Utah – A Weber State University senior has garnered big research experience studying the world’s smallest rabbit.

Jennifer Schmalz, who will graduate in December with majors in zoology and botany, has spent parts of the past two years studying pygmy rabbits (Brachylagus idahoensis) and their habitat, with her “classroom” being remote, windswept rangeland near Woodruff, Utah. While Utah’s pygmy rabbits are not considered an endangered species, they are at risk because of human encroachment on land containing sagebrush, the animal’s main source of protection and food.

“I hope my research will help protect the pygmy rabbits,” said Schmalz, of Riverdale, Utah. “They’re losing habitat due to the use of the land and maybe the invasion of non-native species such as cheatgrass that take over and alter the sagebrush community. It will be good to have the information about their lives and their requirements for life, in order to better protect them.”

Usually weighing less than a pound, pygmy rabbits are found primarily in the Great Basin and Intermountain regions of the western U.S. They typically burrow in deep soils below tall, dense sagebrush or rabbitbrush.           

Schmalz first found herself amid the sagebrush near Woodruff in 2010, when the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources began a project to understand pygmy rabbit populations on U.S. Bureau of Land Management property. She collaborated closely with the division, which had awarded a grant to two WSU professors for the research and will use the findings to help determine future use of the land ­— specifically, whether to thin the sagebrush.

Prior to that work, Schmalz knew nothing about pygmy rabbits. She would learn quickly over a two-month period, working with a DWR biologist and a few WSU botany students and employing tactics as simple as scanning for fresh burrow diggings and as technological as using GPS.

“We found a lot of pygmy rabbits there, more than I think anyone thought there would be,” Schmalz said.

That work dovetailed into a zoology senior thesis project last fall. Schmalz and a few student colleagues returned to Woodruff to get detailed measurements of the size and density of the sagebrush to assess the plant types that the rabbits prefer.

 

 Photo of pygmy rabbit courtesy of

 

“The more we know about pygmy rabbits, the better we can protect them. We found that they are using sagebrush that are bigger, that provide more cover. But we also found that the density of the sagebrush plants doesn’t matter. Their density within a burrow area was very similar to that of a non-burrow area. It’s just that plants in a non-burrow area were very small compared to those in a burrow area,” she said.

A subsequent senior thesis for botany involved further study of the density and species of plants associated with the burrows, non-burrow areas and abandoned burrows. After graduating in December, Schmalz plans to continue her research, this time focusing on the pygmy rabbit’s seasonal diet. It will likely be finished in the spring.

Schmalz admits that the pygmy rabbits have a “cute factor,” and she wants them to be around for future generations. “I think it’s awesome that we have the smallest of something, right here in Utah,” she said. “It only lives in a small part of the U.S. It’s the only place that has the smallest rabbit in the world.”

Specifically, Schmalz wants to be sure human activity doesn’t cause its extinction.

“Everyone has a different idea about what should be preserved and what doesn’t need to be preserved, and what is a good way to use land and what’s not a good way to use land. I would like to see the things that are here now persist. It’s important to keep that diversity out there in nature. Without the pygmy rabbit, with everything connected, who knows what would happen to the sage and to the rangeland?”

Schmalz credits her parents, Clay and Darla Schmalz, for helping her with the research, including supplying a trailer for her trips to Woodruff in the summer of 2010. That trailer would have come in handy during a recent follow-up visit when tents were all that protected her research group from 16-degree weather.

She also expressed appreciation to three WSU professors for giving her the opportunity to study the pygmy rabbit — Sam Zeveloff, zoology professor and chair of the Department of Zoology; Barbara Wachocki, botany professor and chair of the Department of Botany; and Michele Skopec, assistant zoology professor — and students Jordan Hyde of Layton, Utah; Aaron Ogden of Clinton, Utah; and Heidi Simper of Taylorsville, Utah, for their help with the research.

Zeveloff said Schmalz’ work was “wonderful for her in terms of the experience she’s getting as to how to do ecological research” and noted that Schmalz also had valuable interaction with people from federal and state agencies.

“Jennifer is a real go-getter,” Zeveloff said. “She brings a tremendous amount of energy and enthusiasm. She brings an inquisitive mind. She has great field skills in terms of stamina and being able to do things under difficult conditions. There is a lot of youthful energy, and she brings a pure love of the subject, which is critical to anybody making headway in any discipline.”

Wachocki said Schmalz’ work represents externally funded research, “and those opportunities are increasing as we develop relationships with federal and state agencies.” It also is an example of collaborative research between WSU departments and how students can do research on specialized topics. “Students can study ecosystems in general, but they also have the opportunity to study rare and endangered plants and animals,” Wachocki said.

“Given her double major and the scope of her project, she learned plant taxonomy and plant community sampling techniques, she learned how to use a GPS unit and how to record specific locations where data were collected, as well as looking at the needs of the pygmy rabbit and conducting dietary analysis,” Wachocki said. “She found ways that tie botany and zoology together.”

Schmalz plans to attend graduate school but still hopes to conduct further study on the pygmy rabbits. “I’d love to compare this grazed area with a non-grazed area, but it would be really hard to find non-grazed land in Utah,” she said. “I think I’ll always be interested in how the pygmy rabbits are doing.”

Schmalz’ research led to her presenting her findings about the rabbits’ habitat ecology during the annual meeting of the American Society of Mammalogists in Portland, Ore., in June.

At WSU, Schmalz has served as a laboratory assistant in the zoology department; received the Earl W. Smart Memorial Scholarship, awarded by the department to outstanding students during their junior year; and in the spring earned WSU’s Evolutionary Ecology Award as the top student in the fields of ecology, evolution and/or animal behavior.

As part of one WSU course, Schmalz co-wrote a wildlife management plan for Fort Buenaventura that was subsequently adopted by the Weber County Parks and Recreation Department. The recommendations eventually could lead to improved fishing at the park’s pond and a larger variety of trees.

Visit weber.edu/wsutoday for more news about Weber State University.

Contact:
Jennifer Schmalz, WSU senior
801-564-0670 • jenny_schmalz@hotmail.com

Sam Zeveloff, chair, zoology department
801-626-6655 • szeveloff@weber.edu

Barbara Wachocki, chair, botany department
801-626-7445 • bwachocki@weber.edu

Author:
Brice Wallace, office of Media Relations
801-626-7581 • bricewallace1@weber.edu