From UNH: As Granite Staters move out of New Hampshire cities into more suburban communities, it’s led to increased development in previously rural areas, transforming them into exurbs — area outside the city that are less densly populated than suburbs, but more dense than rural areas. Not much is known about the behavioral responses of mammals to the changing habitat as it becomes more fragmented largely by new residential housing. To better understand the impact on mammals, the team studied their activity levels and patterns, specifically comparing activity in rural versus suburban areas.
In a recently published paper in the Journal of Urban Ecology, New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station scientist Remington Moll along with lead author and UNH graduate research assistant Mairi Poisson ’23G, UNH graduate research assistant Andrew Butler ’11, and their partners from New Hampshire Fish and Game, find that mammals change their behavior in complex ways to adapt to growing rural development. Ultimately, their findings indicate that mammals alter their behaviors to adjust to expanding development, which could act as early warnings of future population impacts.
The researchers used 104 motion-activated cameras placed in rural and suburban locations in the Seacoast and Southeastern parts of the state to photograph mammals over time. The cameras automatically took pictures of animals whenever they came into view. The team focused their study on 13 mammal species detected frequently enough to study: bobcat, coyote, fisher, white-tailed deer, red fox, gray fox, Eastern striped skunk, Eastern cottontail rabbit, Virginia opossum, raccoon, North American porcupine and snowshoe hare.
The researchers analyzed the timing of the camera images to see if mammal activity levels and daily patterns differed between rural and suburban sites, and they tested hypotheses about whether species with larger ranges or more daytime activity would change behaviors more in suburban areas.
The team identified both species- and season-specific responses to exurbanization by the animals studied, explained Poisson, and discovered that there wasn’t any uniform response to exurbanization across the entire mammal community.
“Some species, like the white-tailed deer, reduced their overall activity in exurban areas in the winter but not in the summer,” Poisson said. “In terms of activity patterns, some species did become more nocturnal in response to exurbanization, like bobcats, while others actually shifted away from nocturnality, like the fisher during summers.”
Additional observations included that bobcats and rabbits significantly reduced their activity in exurban areas during the summer, while coyotes and deer became more nocturnal. The diverse responses in New Hampshire mammals highlight the complicated interplay between wildlife and human settlements spreading into rural areas.
“The research sheds light on species-specific behavioral changes that could affect mammal communities as rural landscapes become more developed,” said Moll. “Changes in activity behavior could be an early warning signal for future population declines, or it could simply indicate that these species are able to successfully adapt to exurbanization by altering their behaviors.”
Future research by Moll and his team will focus on identifying whether behavior changes indicate either adaptation or possible population decline.
“Either way, understanding these complex wildlife adaptations will be key for managing mammal populations amidst expanding suburbs,” he added.