Dr. Rachael Urbanek

Dr. Rachael E. Urbanek

Associate Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Certified Wildlife Biologist®
Assistant Department Chair and Summer Internship Coordinator
Department of Environmental Sciences, University of North Carolina Wilmington
601 South College Road, Wilmington, North Carolina 28403-5949
Office: Dobo Hall 2028/2030     Email: urbanekr@uncw.edu     Phone: 910.962.7909     Fax: 910.962.7634

Current Students

Abby Weinshenker

Abby Weinshenker is taking the graduate student lead on a study investigating the use of highway underpasses by black bears in North Carolina.

In 2005, a new 4-lane divided highway section of U.S. Highway 64 in Washington County, North Carolina, USA, was completed that cut through 19.3 km of high-quality black bear (Ursus americanus) habitat with a dense bear population. To reduce impacts on the bear population and increase diver safety, 3 wildlife underpasses were incorporated into this section. Three-meter-high chain link fence extended a minimum of 800 m from each underpass in both directions and parallel to the highway. University of Tennessee Knoxville (UTK), in collaboration with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) and North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT), monitored wildlife use via cameras in each underpass for 1-year post construction. Bears used all 3 underpasses, but use was limited to 10 bears on 17 occasions. UTK found that bear population abundance declined after the new highway was built, likely due to mortality from vehicle collisions, habitat loss and fragmentation, and displacement. However, gene flow was not impacted, likely due to the mitigating factors of the wildlife underpasses. Per recommendation of the UTK study, we are conducting a follow-up survey to determine if bear use of the underpasses increased over time. Starting in November 2019, a total of 11 cameras were placed at the 3 underpasses. In addition, 1 camera was placed at 15 gaps found in the fencing to document wildlife use. Our results will also provide recommendations for maintaining and improving fencing and managing vegetation in and around underpasses. Our study will show the importance of continued monitoring of highway wildlife passages to determine long-term effectiveness and maintenance needs.

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Abby Weinshenker

Katie Barton

Katie Barton is an undergraduate student investigating areas around New Hanover County where bobcats, coyotes, and fox co-exist.

Katie was a First-Year Research Experience (FYRE) student from the Honor’s Program who helped start this long-term project in Spring 2020. This project includes identifying locations throughout New Hanover County that have coyotes (Canis latrans), bobcats (Lynx rufus), and foxes (Vulpes vulpes and Urocyon cineroargenteus). We deploy passive infrared game cameras throughout multiple sites for 2-3 weeks at each location. The overall goal of this project is to identify locations throughout the county where these species coexist. Katie continues to help with seasonal fieldwork and data management on this project and she also was awarded a SURCA to work on the HWY 64 study in Summer 2020.

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Katie Barton

Erin Burgess

Erin Burgess is a graduate student studying the spatial relationship between land use change and fox abundance in North Carolina. She is enrolled in the thesis program in the Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences and is co-advised by me and Dr. Joanne Halls.

Fox populations in North Carolina have been monitored via hunter harvest surveys and reported take from depredation permits and trappers. In 2012, The Commission surveyed stakeholders and found a gradient of perceptions regarding fox abundance in the state: fox hunters believed fox numbers have declined, specifically due to trapping, whereas trappers believed fox numbers were abundant. In addition to harvest pressure, North Carolina's landscape has been rapidly changing from native pine to agricultural and urban areas. A swiftly expanding population of another non-native competitive species, the coyote, also may affect fox populations. This study will investigate the relationship of land use change in North Carolina from 1996-2016, differing harvest regulations, and the presence of coyotes to county-wide fox population abudance.

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Erin Burgess

Former Students

Julia Reinhart

Julia Reinhart was an undergraduate marine biology student helping with the a study investigating the use of highway underpasses by black bears in North Carolina.

Julia was an integral part of the HWY 64 project described above in other student profiles. Her DIS work provided the foundation that use to manage the tens of thousands of images for this study by creating a working document that provides step by step instructions in reviewing, labeling, and organizing the immense of data. Her attention to detail and hard work surely has and will save all future students a lot of time on this project!

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Julia Reinhart

Carson Hicks

Carson Hicks was a graduate student studying wildlife disease prevalence in North Carolina.

With North Carolina’s human population and urban development rapidly expanding, spread of zoonotic disease is of concern to both wildlife managers and public health officials. Since 2014 , animal control offices submitted approximately 3,000-4,000 domestic and wild animals for rabies testing. At a cost of approximately $50 for each test, North Carolina spends about $225,000 per year testing animals. Between 2014-2018, only 6-8% of total submissions were positive for rabies. During this time period, 69% of striped skunks (Mephitis mephitis) submitted were positive for rabies, while 2% of Chiroptera species were positive. Our objectives are to determine if there is a species bias for rabies submissions and if demographic and geographic factors influence submission rates. We will use a one-way ANOVA determine if a species-specific bias for submission exists across the state. Using multiple regression analyses and data from all 100 counties, we will regress species-specific positive submission rates on income, age, education, gender, ethnicity, population density, housing density, and geographical region (Coastal Plains, Piedmont, Mountains). Determining which factors may influence submission rates will help both wildlife and public health professionals cater educational rabies programs to those groups and regions In addition, the North Carolina Division of Public Health only provides publicly-available data on those animals that tested positive for rabies; information on the percent of animals, by species, that tested negative is not readily available. Our research will provide information on the percent of non-positive animals by species and county, which may provide a tool for wildlife managers to use for monitoring for canine distemper outbreaks.

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Carson Hicks

Rebecca Buteau

Rebecca Buteau was a graduate student studying public attitudes toward coyotes and their management in New Hanover County, North Carolina.

As coyotes (Canis latrans) expand their range, managers need to monitor human-coyote conflicts and devise appropriate management strategies, especially in urban areas where trapping and hunting are often limited. We surveyed 4,000 taxpayers from New Hanover County, North Carolina to assess human-coyote interactions, public attitudes, and conflict regarding 3 coyote management methods: no management; public education; trap and euthanasia. We evaluated the acceptance and potential for conflict of these techniques countywide and among portions of the public segmented based on demographics, zip code, coyote encounters, participation in animal rights groups, and knowledge about coyotes’ nativity. Most (89%) respondents were aware of coyote presence in the county but respondents had mixed knowledge about whether coyotes were native (37% yes, 40% no, 23% unsure). Forty-five percent of respondents had personal interactions with coyotes in the past year and most (67%) of those interactions were with coyotes behaving naturally (i.e., nocturnal/crepuscular activities). Most (62%) respondents believed the coyote population has increased recently. Public education was the most acceptable management method countywide. No management was more acceptable for female respondents, younger respondents, members of animal rights groups, and those who considered coyotes to be native, whereas lethal control was more acceptable for respondents from opposite demographic segments. Residents were least conflicted about public education (PCI2 = 0.17); no management (0.46) and trap/euthanize (0.41) had high levels of conflict. For all demographic segments, conflict remained the lowest for public education (0.13-0.25) and remained high for no management (0.34-0.57) and trap/euthanasia (0.33-0.48). Seeking public opinion regarding coyote management methods prior to implementation will likely benefit natural resource managers by increasing public support for coyote management decisions and facilitating a more proactive approach to coyote management.

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Becky Buteau

Rachel Joffey

Rachel Joffey was a graduate student working on an inter-institutional urban biodiversity study. She is currently working as a Wildlife Biological Science Technician for USFWS.

North Carolinians need cities designed for their well-being in all its forms: economic, social, physical, and mental. Cities that include healthy, resilient, and biodiverse ecosystems underpin the provision of this well-being. However, it is unclear what determines the biodiversity of a city. Our proposed collaboration of faculty and students with expertise in the STEM and non-STEM disciplines from three UNC institutions (UNCW, UNCC, and UNC) of differing sizes, research program scopes, and missions, seeks to address this knowledge gap for the benefit of North Carolinians by asking: What are the drivers of biodiversity across cities?

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Rachel Joffey

Mike Gillikin

Mike Gillikin was a graduate student working on spatially analyzing the movements of rehabilitated black bears in North Carolina. He is now the Mammal Conservation Biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission has sponsored a rehabilitation program for black bear (Ursus americanus) cubs since 1976. Originally, the program was meant to help increase and restore the bear population in the state; while this need has passed, the program has continued because of public desire. Although bears are released at state-managed lands that are distant from human development, NCWRC staff and the public have become concerned that these bears may be more likely to become “nuisances.” In 2012, the Commission’s Black Bear Committee recommended that the rehabilitated cubs be monitored to assess the program. We are currently analyzing a database of the GPS locations and fates of 28 rehabilitated bear cubs to assess if any changes to the rehabilitation program are warranted.

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Mike Gillikin

Kayla McNeilly

Kayla McNeilly was a graduate student investigating the perching frequency of predatory avifauna on signs posted to protect nesting shorebirds. She currently works as an Environmental Specialist for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Many shorebird species are declining, particularly beach nesters, due to increases in coastal development, human disturbance, nest predation, and over-wash during strong storms. The Atlantic Flyway Shorebird Initiative is working on an outreach/communications project that includes development of consistent messages on signs posted around nesting, foraging, and roosting areas along the Atlantic Flyway. Like the well-known and used deer-crossing sign on roads, the assumption is that people will see consistent messages and be more likely to understand and obey the restrictions. Based on field observations, biologists question whether the shape of signs used to identify important bird habitat affects frequency of perching by predatory avian species. Many people anecdotally believe that a triangle or diamond-shaped sign reduces the frequency with which these avian predators perch on the signs. However, we are not aware of quantitative data supporting this belief. The goal of this project is to investigate the effects, if any, of shape, size, color, and height/placement of the sign on the frequency of predatory avian perching.

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Kayla McNeilly

Bracy Heinlein

Bracy Heinlein was an undergraduate student conducting a side-study on the pilot fox project for her Honors thesis. She has been recently gaining more experience interning as and Animal Keeper at ZooAtlanta.

Camera traps paired with attractants can provide population estimates of mesocarnivores, but not all attractants are equally effective. From 13 January–30 March 2018, we compared the success of synthetic fermented egg, fatty acid scent tablets, castor (Castor canadensis) oil, and sardines against a control of no attractant in drawing mesocarnivores to camera traps. We deployed each attractant and the control with either no regard to masking human scent or attempting to restrict human scent (n = 10 treatment types) and replicated treatments 8-9 times. We recorded 43,414 photos over 1,176 trap nights. We found that managers need not mask their scent when deploying camera traps for mesocarnivores, but should be aware that mesocarnivores respond differently to attractants. Current results show cost differs between treatments, but whether effectiveness outweighs cost is still being determined.

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Bracy Heinlein

Holly Jones

Holly Jones was a graduate student studying the sensitivity of Reconyx(R) game cameras for wildlife monitoring studies. She currently works as a Wildlife Biological Science Technician for the Department of Defense at Camp Lejeune.

As part of a larger study investigating the occupancy of red fox (Vulpes vulpes), gray fox (Uroycon cineroargenteus), and coyote (Canis latrans), Reconyx game cameras are being used to photograph species in wildlife management areas throughout the coastal plain of North Carolina. We set 12 cameras each in 3 wildlife management areas in Summer 2016 and Winter 2017. The cameras were set to take a picture every minute in addition to a burst of 3 shots when triggered by motion or change in infrared temperature. Upon preliminary data review, the Reconyx cameras appear to miss many organisms using the triggered shot but those indviduals were captured using the standard timed photograph. We will be analyzing the proportion of captured organisms using both methods and investigating why discrepancies between the 2 settings may exist.

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Holly Jones

Mariah Maser

Mariah Maser was an undergraduate student who helped study the 2016-17 pilot fox monitoring data. She currently is the Animal Caretaker and Enivronmental Eduacator at the Schiele Museum of Natural History.

In response to growing disparate concerns from stakeholders, the recognition of a rapidly changing landscape from native pine to agricultural and urban areas, and a swiftly expanding population of another non-native competitive species, the coyote (Canis latrans), the Wildlife Resources Commission committed to establishing an additional approach to characterizing red fox (Vulpes vulpes) and grey fox (Urocyon cineroargenteus) populations status throughout the state. This project includes the initial efforts to meet the objectives for the 2016 and 2017 fox survey years and to provide groundwork and information for future years of fox surveys. The goal of this project is to establish a protocol that will enable The Commission to monitor fox population trends throughout the coastal plain, and eventually, the entire state. By using standard scientific methodology in this monitoring effort, The Commission will be able to address questions and concerns by the public, particularly from trappers and fox hunters, regarding the population health (i.e., abundance and/or occupancy) of both fox species, as well as make management recommendations based on sound science.

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Mariah Maser

Zach Taneyhill

Zach Taneyhill was a graduate student aiding in the study of the mesocarnivore population on Masonboro Island.

Red fox (Vulpes vulpes) management has been conducted on Masonboro Island since 2013 to reduce depredation on loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta) nests. Depredation rates have varied among years indicating either an influx of red fox onto the island post cull or other mesopredators preying on sea turtle nests. This pilot study investigates the presence of red fox and other mesocarnivores on Masonboro Island after the 2016 red fox culling event and aims to characterize mesocarnivore behavior and interactions during the turtle nesting season. Moultrie Panoramic infrared cameras (n = 16-18) were installed along the base of the dunes on the shoreline of Masonboro Island in May 2016; data from photos will be collected through October 2016. This information will provide valuable knowledge as to the effectiveness of the red fox management regime and may provide more insight into both turtle and predator behavior during the nesting season.

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Zach Taneyhill

Bennett Grooms

Bennett Grooms was a Masters student studying the influences of non-consumptive trail use and environmental factors on Arkansas state park biodiversity. He is currently pursing a Ph.D. within the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation at Virginia Tech University.

Bennett received his B.S. from the University of Missouri in 2014 and his M.S. under my advisement from Arkansas Tech University in 2016.

State parks serve a dual conservation role by offering protected habitat to a diversity of species while also promoting recreational use of natural resources. Non-consumptive recreation activities, however, have long-term negative effects on the behavior, physiology, and reproductive success of state park biotic communities. The purpose of our research was to investigate the possible synergistic effects of non-consumptive trail use, environmental factors, and trail design factors on avian, mesocarnivore, and woody vegetation communities in Arkansas state parks. During 18 May – 7 August 2015, we conducted avian point counts, trail user counts, set camera traps, and sampled vegetation at a total of 227 points on the main trail systems of 4 Arkansas state parks. We quantified community richness, evenness, and diversity for each taxon to examine differences in community metrics at the regional and local scales. We also investigated the synergistic effects influencing taxonomic community metrics in the parks. These data were further used to create detection maps of flagship avifauna and to evaluate the efficacy of a pilot citizen science program in the parks. In general, our results indicated the need for a holistic management strategy that addresses the collective anthropogenic and local environmental effects that influence park taxonomic communities while actively incorporating the public in those conservation goals.

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Bennett Grooms

Catherine Normand

Catherine Normand was a Masters student studying various ecological aspects of a local exurban feral cat population and is currently a Nutria Wildlife Biologist with the Louisiana Department of Fish and Game.

Catherine received her B.S. from Louisiana State University in 2011 and completed her M.S. under my advisement from Arkansas Tech University in 2014.

Domestic cats (Felis catus) are ubiquitous in natural and anthropogenically-modified ecosystems and they negatively impact their environments. Prior research into feral cat ecology in the U.S. has focused primarily on feline leukemia virus (FeLV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) prevalence, spatial organization, and home ranges of cats in urban and rural areas, but information concerning habitat use or exurban feral cat populations is sparse. The purpose of our research was to investigate feral cat virus infection prevalence; survival; population density; and macro- and microhabitat use in exurban Russellville, Arkansas. From October 2012 to August 2013, we captured 93 feral cats and collected blood from each individual for FeLV/FIV testing. We also fit mortality-sensing radiocollars on 29 adult cats and conducted radiotelemetry over 65 weeks to determine survival, home range sizes, and to identify summer daytime resting sites (DRSs). We used multivariate analyses to determine 2nd, 3rd, and 4th order habitat use.

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Catherine Normand

Austin Klais

Austin Klais was an undergraduate student who studied activity patterns and interspecific interactions of free-ranging domestic cats at urban feeding stations. Austin was under my advisement and completed his B.S. from Arkansas Tech University in 2015. He is currently working as an ecologist for FTN Associates Environmental Consultancy Firm in Fayateville, Arkansas.

The presence of free-ranging domestic cats and wildlife at urban feeding stations may facilitate high-risk interactions between animals as well as people in the surrounding area. Feeding stations may act as pathways for disease transfer from wildlife to domestic cats posing a human health risk as these cats are often in contact with people either directly or via free ranging pets. Our goal was to examine the extent of which urban feeding stations enable negative interspecific interactions between feral cats and wildlife. This research will provide valuable information in determining how frequent feral cats interact with potentially diseased wildlife (i.e., rabid skunks [Mephitis mephitis]) in the Russellville, Arkansas city limits. Furthermore, video and photo data from this study will be a valuable tool when educating the public on how the simple action of feeding domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) or cats outside may be encouraging the aggregation of wildlife species unknown to the home or business owner.

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Read more about Austin Klais' recognition as the Student Conservationist of the Year

Read more about Austin Klais' Honarable Mention at The Wildlife Society's national conference in 2014

Austin Klais

Ryan Keith

Ryan Keith is a graduate student studying the impacts of man-made structures on avian community metrics of 4 state parks in northwestern Arkansas. He graduated in December of 2016.

Avian community metrics often differ between areas with no human disturbance and areas with high levels of human disturbance. However, the relationships between avian community metrics and smaller-scale disturbances are not as clear. Our goal was to investigate if avian abundance, richness, evenness, and diversity differed in areas with and without small-scale human developments.

We compared points which contained a man-made structure, such as a picnic area, road, or campsite to those that did not contain a man-made structure at 4 state parks in Arkansas during 18 May – 7 August 2015. We conducted 3 fixed-radius 50-m avian point counts at each state park and averaged community metrics from the 3 visits for each point to compare points with and without man-made structures. We used paired t-tests to compare points at the park scale and one-way ANOVAs or Kruskal-Wallis tests to investigate differences among trails within parks. At the park scale, avian abundance, richness, diversity, and evenness did not differ between points containing man-made structures and points without man-made structures. Species richness and diversity were higher at points with man-made structures at Pinnacle Mountain than points without man-made structures; abundance and evenness did not differ among points. Within the 3 remaining parks, abundance, richness, diversity, and evenness did not differ between points with and without man-made structures. Given the results of our analyses both at the park scale and within parks, it appears that small-scale man-made disturbances may have limited or no impact on avian community metrics.

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Ryan Keith

Prospective Students


I enjoy working with and engaging undergraduate and graduate students in research. All students I have mentored in the past were ambitious and hard-working; 2 qualities I would continue to look for when deciding to mentor future students. I believe students learn how to conduct research best when they have a feeling of independence, and thus responsibility and ownership of their project. As a mentor, I guide them in the right direction by providing literature and discussing concepts for them to explore in their research. Then, I allow students to conduct research in a quasi-trial and error routine. In this fashion, students learn from their mistakes and learn that research is not a quick and easy practice which will hopefully provide them insight into their future career goals. I am always looking for talented, independent, and motivated students to participate in my research. I push students to succeed by challenging their abilities, exploring new ideas, pursuing publication, and being a leader in this field.

Please feel free to contact me if your interests align with my current or past research and are ready to challenge yourself. Dependent upon on funding and other logistics, I may have a project waiting to be tackled. Previous students of mine have gone on to graduate schools or begun successful careers in the field of natural resources.

Also check out our non-thesis program in the Department of Environmental Sciences and the thesis program at the Center for Marine Sciences. Please note that you must contact me prior to applying to the thesis program if you would like me to be your thesis advisor.

Email Dr. Rachael Urbanek

Rachael Urbanek

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This site and its contents are maintained by Dr. Rachael Urbanek and were updated on 8 May 2020. Please contact the author if you have any questions, comments, or concerns.