student holding fox

Meet the Spider who tracks foxes only found on a California Channel Island

August 27, 2021

Spider Pride

Most college students don’t relish waking up at 4 a.m., but for junior biology major Elizabeth Forrey, it’s the dream.

“I love it,” she said. “I wanted to learn about the daily life of wildlife technicians and biologists. I quickly found out that you have to wake up at 4 a.m. to run around in the woods with a really heavy backpack all day.”

Forrey used the Richmond Guarantee to fund her internship with The Nature Conservancy, spending July in a cabin on Santa Cruz Island, 25 miles off the coast of California, tracking endangered fox populations in the region. She learned how to quickly vaccinate and microchip Channel Island foxes and island spotted skunks to help protect the species.

“The team taught me how to safely handle and trap the foxes and skunks, do work-ups, vaccinate animals, collect samples, and set camera traps,” Forrey said. “This was an incredible learning experience.”

The Channel Island fox isn’t found anywhere else on Earth, and it’s the only carnivore that’s unique to California. Their numbers have always been small, but in the 1990s, the species was nearly wiped out by golden eagles that preyed on them. By 2000 the population had diminished to less than 100. Since then, the conservancy has been working to restore the population.

Jory Brinkerhoff, associate professor of biology, has been working with Forrey tracking tick-borne diseases to help protect wildlife around the globe.

“Elizabeth’s positivity and enthusiasm made her such a great candidate for this project,” Brinkerhoff said. “Fieldwork is very challenging, and the fox project required early morning work for days on end at a remote site with no access to shops or other conveniences. Even after hearing about all the discomfort associated with the project, Elizabeth was still excited to give it a try.”

Brinkerhoff began working with Forrey in fall 2019, and when it became clear that her summer plans would not be possible because of COVID-19, he made sure she got the chance to work at the conservancy.

“I have seen her persevere in the face of adversity in the lab,” Brinkerhoff said, “but doing so under challenging field conditions is impressive on a whole new level.”