Dr. Rachael Urbanek

Dr. Rachael E. Urbanek

Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Certified Wildlife Biologist®
Department Chair
Department of Environmental Sciences, University of North Carolina Wilmington
601 South College Road, Wilmington, North Carolina 28403-5949
Office: Dobo Hall 2006/2030     Email: urbanekr@uncw.edu     Phone: 910.962.7909

Current Students


Sarah Bristle

Sarah Bristle was a sophomore undergraduate working on the Hwy. 64 project She now working on her honors thesis with me investigation the association of cyantoxins on muskrat populations.

Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) populations have been declining within their range in the United States for reasons unclear, but hypothesized to be related to pathogens, toxins, or contaminants in water bodies. Cyanotoxins result from algal blooms caused by excess nitrogen in waterways through fertilizer and agricultural runoff, a common occurrence in agricultural landscapes in late summer. The goal of our project is to determine if an association exists between cyanotoxins, specifically microcystins, anatoxins, and saxitoxins, and muskrat presence in southeastern North Carolina. Our objectives are to 1) identify water bodies in the North Carolina Coastal Plain with muskrats and cyanotoxins presence, 2) determine what cyanotoxins are present and how their concentrations change throughout peak summer temperatures, and 3) investigate if there is an association between type of cyanotoxin, concentration, and absence of muskrat in these water bodies. Working with trappers, we are identifying water bodies that have muskrats and water bodies that trappers ceased using because of declining success of capturing muskrats, possibly from local extirpation. From June to August 2024, we will deploy Solid Phase Adsorption Toxin Tracking (SPATT) bags in approximately 20 water bodies to collect biweekly evidence of cyanotoxins in the water column and in the benthic layer. As muskrats are a key part of wetland and aquatic ecosystems, it is crucial to understand why they are declining and the impact of cyanotoxins in their environments. These results will also be used to understand further algal bloom testing and how cyanotoxins impact aquatic and wetland mammals.

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Sarah Bristle

Sarah Branagan

Sarah is a graduate student in the dual Environmental Studies and Public Administration program concentrating in conservation and nonprofit management. Sarah is working with myself and Dr. Stacy Endriss on a project investigating the current occupancy and distribution of Wayne's black-throated green warblers (Setophaga virens waynei).

The Wayne’s black-throated green warbler has an isolated breeding range in coastal Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, USA. It is listed as a species of conservation concern by these state wildlife agencies and has a petition for its federal listing under the Endangered Species Act; however, not enough is known about its habitat and management needs to corroborate this ruling. Our goal is to determine micro- and macrohabitat determinants of breeding habitat selection in North Carolina using bioacoustic technology. While citizen scientist reports of this species occur sporadically across the North Carolina Coastal Plain, we focused our study at Bladen Lakes State Forest and Turnbull Creek Educational State Forest in Bladen County (13,641 ha combined) as one of only 4 known locations where breeding individuals have been identified in the state. From 18 March – 8 May 2024, we deployed 20 MicroMoth autonomous recording units and rotated them weekly to sample 140 plots stratified across macrohabitat types and collected >2,500 hrs of acoustic data. At each plot, we recorded microhabitat data including quantifying tree canopy density and the number of each overstory (>4.5” DBH) tree species <11.3m of the recorder. We analyzed audio files to determine occupancy and detection rates of the warbler throughout the study site and then assessed what macro- and microhabitat variables best predicted occupancy. We plan to extrapolate our macrohabitat results to the rest of the breeding range to identify potential critical habitat for the species.

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Sarah Branagan

Zoe Franzak

Zoe is a sophomore double majoring in Environmental Science and pre-marine biology. She's joining the Hwy 64 team in Fall 2024!

Wildlife conservation is incredibly important to Zoe, especially in areas with constant development. Zoe wants to ensure that our local wildlife thrives and inform others of their importance.

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Zoe Franzak

Former Students

Elle Linthicum

Elle Linthicum was a first year Honors research experience student under my supervision. She then completed her honor's thesis in my lab. Elle is purusing her M.S. in Biology at UNCW now!

Red wolves (Canis rufus) are critically endangered, where 95% of the population resides under human care. The leading causes of wolf mortalities are human caused, yet little research exists on how, or if, ex situ management protocols contribute to this outcome via habituation. The North Carolina Zoo houses the second largest population of wolves, and while the majority are kept away from guests, some are rotated into a guest view habitat. We investigated how repeated exposure to guests may affect wolf activity behavior. Throughout July – August 2023, we conducted 10-minute group focal sampling on two wolves housed on a public-view exhibit and compared activity profiles across crowd size, decibel levels, and time of day. In total, we had 969 usable focal sessions, 19,380 data points. Alert, locomotion, and rest comprised an average of 87% of all daily observations. We found that on busy days and higher guest counts, the wolves spent most of their time being locomotive and exhibiting alert behaviors while choosing locations in the habitat that distanced themselves from guests. Guest presence, not their noise, altered wolf behavior. These behavioral changes indicate that these wolves are still responding to humans with their normal skittish, elusive behaviors. Therefore, wolves on public display at zoos do not appear likely to seek human interactions once released in the wild. Zoos can continue exposing the public to red wolves which could help change public opinion and legislation around the wild population without fear of harming the overall survival of the species.

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Elle Linthicum

Ethan Williams

Ethan is a freshman just getting his feet wet in my lab!

Ethan introduced himself to me within a few weeks of his first semester at UNCW in Fall 2023. In Spring 2024, he'll start off working on the Hwy. 64 project to get a taste of wildlife research. If he likes it, I am sure he'll have plenty of opportunities in the remaining 3 years of his academic career!

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Ethan Williams

Andrea Barton

Andrea Barton was a senior on the Herp Biodiversity Team and also worked on the Hwy. 64 project her sophomore year.

Andrea joined the Hwy. 64 project as an EVS 291 DIS student in Spring 2022. Her major interests are herps and large mammals, of which she saw plenty of images of that semester! In Spring 2023, Andrea joined the Herp Biodiversity Team to gain hands-on field experience. She checked coverboards on UNCW's campus twice a week, gaining IACUC certification, and attended the NC Chapter of The Wildlife Society meeting. In Summer 2023, Andrea took the lead as a paid undegraduate research assistant to train new students on the Herp Biodiversity Project working at the UNCW site.

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Andrea Barton

Katie Barton

Katie Barton was an undergraduate student who started in my lab as a freshman as a FYRE student. She continued to work on different projects, including her Honor's thesis. Katie also worked as my undergraduate TA for Wildlife Techniques in Fall 2023. Katie is off to be a Conservation Educator at Animal Kingdom after graduation before she heads on to graduate school.

Anecdotal observations and media reports suggested an increase in wildlife activity during the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown. However, existing studies are contradictory as to if wildlife activity changed during the pandemic and few sought to quantify changes in human activity that could serve as an influencing factor. We investigated if human activity on campus changed during the pandemic and how that change may have influenced wildlife activity. From 28 August - 23 October 2020, we deployed individual passive infrared game cameras at 18 sites to capture terrestrial wildlife activity along trails within a ~78ha longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) forest. During this time, classes were moved online, in-person events were canceled, students were quarantined, and half the freshman class were moved off-campus. We used regression analyses and ANOVAs to determine what factors influenced human and animal activity on campus and to examine changes in the 24-hr activity periods of both humans and animal species. Weather and the number of positive COVID-19 cases in New Hanover County had no effect on human or wildlife activity. However, our findings suggest a decrease in COVID-19 cases on the UNCW campus led to an increase in human activity, which then led to an increase in wildlife activity. Thus, the number of COVID-19 cases indirectly affected wildlife activity. These results provide insight into species’ responses to sudden changes in human activity in an urban setting and indirect effects of societal public health measures on wildlife populations.

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Katie Barton

Ryleigh Williamson

Ryliegh Williamson was a senior on the Herp Biodiversity Team in Summer 2023.

Ryleigh joined the Herp Biodiversity Team in Summer 2003 and checked coverboards at Halyburton Park weekly and gained IACUC training and certification. Ryleigh also worked on data management for the project by helping to summarize the Spring and Summer 2023 data.

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Ryleigh Williamson

Henry Sowers

Henry Sowers was a senior on the Herp Biodiversity Team in Summer and Fall 2023.

Henry joined the Herp Biodiversity Team in Summer 2003 and checked coverboards at Halyburton Park weekly and gained IACUC training and certification. Henry extended his field time from May through October to get loads of experience before graduating!

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Henry Sowers

Rachel Tedder

Rachel Tedder was a sophomore on the Herp Biodiversity Team in Summer and Fall 2023.

Rachel joined the Herp Biodiversity Team in Summer 2003 and checked coverboards at UNCW weekly and gained IACUC training and certification. Rachel extended her field time from May through October to get loads of experience!

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Rachel Tedder

Jackson Orzechowski

Jackson Orzechowski was a senior on the Herp Biodiversity Team in Summer and Fall 2023.

Jackson was a history major with a business minor who just happens to also loves herps! He joined the Herp Biodiversity Team in Summer 2003 and checked coverboards at UNCW weekly and gained IACUC training and certification.

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Jackson Orzechowski

Andy Kloster

Andy Kloster was a senior on the Herp Biodiversity Team in Fall 2023.

Andy joined the Herp Biodiversity Team in Fall 2003 and checked coverboards at Halyburton Park weekly and gained IACUC training and certification. He rounded out his last semester at UNCW with some great field experience!

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Andy Kloster

Carson Bockoven

Carson was a senior on the Herp Biodiversity Team in Fall2023.

Carson joined the Herp Biodiversity Team in August 2003 and checked coverboards at Halyburton Park weekly and gained IACUC training and certification. This experience rounded out her academic experiences in Wildlife Management (EVS 400) and Wildlife Field Techniques (EVS 440)!

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Carson Bockoven

Olivia Trahan

Olivia Trahan was a sophomore honors student working on the Hwy 64 project.

Olivia was an undergraduate majoring in EVS and minoring in Digital Arts and Coastal and Environmental Writing. She joined the Hwy. 64 project to get a taste of wildlife research in Fall 2023.

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Olivia Trahan

Madison John

Madison John was a junior working on the Hwy 64 project.

Madison was an undergraduate double majoring in Biology and Pre-Business Adminsitration and minoring in EVS. She joined the Hwy. 64 project to explore the wildlife side of conservation.

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Madison John

Katie Grelck

Katie Grelck was a junior honors student working on the Hwy 64 project.

Katie was an undergraduate double majoring in EVS and Psychology. She joined the Hwy. 64 project to get a taste of wildlife research in Fall 2023.

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Katie Grelck

Brandy Wible

Brandy Wible was a graduate research assistant leading a Pygmy Rattlesnake Project and was a Joe Burns Memorial Wildlife Policy Intern with The Wildlife Society.

Brandy hit the ground running during her first year at UNCW by joining the Hwy 64 project in her second semester. Now she has taken the lead graduate role on my new pygmy rattlesnake (Sistrurus miliarius) and herp biodiversity project. Pygmy rattlesnakes are the smallest species of rattlesnake in the United States (15-26 inches) and are native to the Sandhills and Coastal Plains of North Carolina. The species is naturally rare in the state but has been protected as a Species of Special Concern because of habitat destruction. At Halyburton Park, there has been 11 opportunistic sightings of the species by park staff and visitors around the visitor center and along trails in the last 15 years. Our long-term goal is to create a model for monitoring pygmy rattlesnakes at municipality, county, and state park and recreation areas throughout the pygmy rattlesnake NC range. This pilot study will establish monitoring techniques at Halyburton Park which we hope to later expand throughout the county and then the pygmy rattlesnake NC range. Literature on pygmy captures is sparse and includes a multitude of methods, none of which have been tested for efficacy. We will test two types of coverboards (metal, plywood), funnel traps paired with portable drift nets, and night walks to determine which methods(s) are most effective at capturing pygmy rattlesnakes. These results will not only inform a monitoring plan but may also contribute to the greater knowledge in the field of wildlife research and conservation. We will also sex, weigh, and mark all pygmies to establish a population monitoring dataset for Halyburton Park. Overtime, this dataset will inform if the population is increasing, remaining stable, or decreasing at the park.

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Brandy Wible

Krishna Tiwari

Krishna Tiwari was a graduate research assistant on the Pygmy Rattlesnake Project and Hwy 64 project.

Krishna Tiwari joined the Pygmy Rattlesnake Project Team Summer 2022 and helped out on all aspects of the project. His enthusiasm for herps made field work a blast as you never knew when he would suddenly dive into a bush and come up with a glass lizard! In Fall 2022, Krishna was also an awesome teaching assistant for EVS 440/541 - Wildlife Field Techniques. In November 2022, Krishna became a research assistant on the Hwy 64 project. He will spend the rest of academic year 22-23 pulling data from the organized and labeled 2022 images, updating analyses and finalizing our report to the NCWRC and NCDOT.

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Krishna Tiwari

Joey Gravino

Joey Gravino was a senior on the Herp Biodiversity Team in Spring 2023. Joey currently is participating in a summer internship with the USGS.

Joey joined the Herp Biodiversity Team after learning about it in EVS 440 - Wildlife Field Techniques. Prior to these experiences, Joey interned at Skywatch Bird Rescue in Summer 2022. On the Herp Team, Joey checked coverboards at Halyburton Park weekly, gaining IACUC training and certification, and participated at the NC Chapter of The Wildlife Society Annual Meeting.

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Joey Gravino

Justice Herman

Justice Herman was a senior on the Herp Biodiversity Team in Spring 2023. She will be starting her graduate degree in the MPA program in Fall 2023!

Justice joined the Herp Biodiversity Team in her senior year to start exploring her interests in wildlife research and management. On the Herp Team, Justice checked coverboards at Halyburton Park weekly, gaining IACUC training and certification, and participated at the NC Chapter of The Wildlife Society Annual Meeting.

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Justice Herman

Jake Jackson

Jake Jackson was a senior on the Herp Biodiversity Team in Spring 2023. He is now works for the NCWRC as a herpetologist!

Like Joey, Jake joined the Herp Biodiversity Team after learning about it in EVS 440 - Wildlife Field Techniques. Jake's an avid herper and has a goal of finding every species of snake in NC. On the Herp Team, Jake checked coverboards at Halyburton Park and UNCW campus weekly, gaining IACUC training and certification, and participated at the NC Chapter of The Wildlife Society Annual Meeting.

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Jake Jackson

Kayla McLaughlin

Kayla McLaughlin was a senior on the Herp Biodiversity Team in Spring 2023.

Kayla also joined the Herp Biodiversity Team after learning about it in EVS 440 - Wildlife Field Techniques. On the Herp Team, Kayla checked coverboards twice a week with Andrea on UNCW's campus, gaining IACUC training and certification, and participated at the NC Chapter of The Wildlife Society Annual Meeting. She also volunteered with USDA-APHIS-Wildlife Services to gain a broader amount of field experience!

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Kayla McLaughlin

Alyssa Caskey

Alyssa Caskey was a senior honors student working on the Hwy 64 project.

Alyssa is an undergraduate majoring in EVS and minoring in Biology and Chemistry; a great combination of science! She joined the Hwy. 64 project to get a taste of wildlife research in Spring 2023.

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Alyssa Caskey

Bailey Kenney

Bailey Kenney was a junior on the Herp Biodiversity Team in Spring 2023. He is now working for the NCWRC!

Bailey joined the Herp Biodiversity Team after learning about it from Fall 2022 members at Seahawk Wildlife Society meetings. On the Herp Team, Bailey checked coverboards at Halyburton Park weekly, gaining IACUC training and certification, and participated at the NC Chapter of The Wildlife Society Annual Meeting.

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Bailey Kenney

Erin Burgess

Erin Burgess was a graduate student studying the spatial relationship between land use change and fox abundance in North Carolina. She completed the non-thesis program in the Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences and was 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

Ally Jones

Ally Jones was an undergraduate research assistant working on the Pygmy Project and conducting her own side study. She will be starting her M.S. at University of South Florida in Fall 2024!

Coverboards are frequently used for herpetological sampling to determine community metrics and while it is common to allow coverboards to establish several months before sampling, little research exists regarding how community metrics change over that time. Further, variations in material, habitat, and position may alter the patterns of community metric establishment over time. Our objective was to observe patterns in community metrics weekly from within 1 week post deployment to 23 weeks post deployment to determine what factors affect coverboard establishment. Our study area is Halyburton Park in Wilmington, North Carolina, U.S., an area that has a rich, diverse ecosystem containing a large variety of herpetofauna. On 29 April 2022, we will deploy 4 variations of 40 coverboards randomly 20m apart throughout 2 habitat types in the park: a cypress pond and a sandhills area. We will randomly assign half of the coverboards in each habitat to 2 types of material, plywood or steel roofing, and position, slightly elevated above ground or flat. We will check coverboards twice per week: once within an hour of sunrise and once during the hottest hour of the day. We will record species abundance, richness, time of day, relative humidity, ambient air temperature, temperature under the coverboard, wind speed, and cloud cover at each coverboard. We plan to use panel regressions to determine effects of material, position, time of day, habitat, and weather factors on species diversity and richness. We also hope to identify specific effects of these factors on timing of coverboard establishment. Ally continues to collaborate with Dr. Urbanek and Brandy Wible on the project!

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Ally Jones

Hannah Bell

Hannah Bell was a graduate research assistant helping on the Pygmy Rattlesnake Project. She is now with our department as Lecturer!

Hannah Bell joined the Pygmy Rattlesnake Project Team Fall 2022. Hannah conducted regular night surveys, where she tried to intercept pygmies as they crossed between wetland and upland habitat while foraging. She also helped out setting up the drift nets and checking those traps. Given Hannah's background in formal education, she also created pocket field guides for herps found in New Hanover County.

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Hannah Bell

Morgan Jacques

Morgan Jacques was a graduate research assistant helping on the Pygmy Rattlesnake Project and worked on analyzing nesting data for burrowing owls in Ecuador. She is now employed by Regeneration Forest Institute in Ecuador where she is creating a wildilfe biodiversity program.

After returning from an internship in Ecuador in Summer 2022, Morgan Jacques joined the Pygmy Rattlesnake Project Team in Fall 2022. She helped out on night surveys with Hannah Bell. In addition to this field work and gaining new skills in EVS 541, Morgan explored a long-term dataset on burrowing owls in Ecuador that she helped collect data on this past summer. We are trying to determine if there are specific physical and environmental factors that may aid in owls having successful recruitment.

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Morgan Jacques

Jaxon Williams

Jaxon Williams was a senior undergraduate helping on the Pygmy Rattlesnake Project.

Jaxon Williams joined the Pygmy Rattlesnake Project Team Summer 2022. He has helped out on all aspects of the project and his knowledge of herps was a great addition to the team! Jaxon also audited EVS 440 so that he can learn and participate in the field labs to expand his skillset even though his schedule precluded him from taking the entire class for credit.

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Jaxon Williams

Alex Noble

Alex Noble was an upperclassman undergraduate working on the Hwy. 64 project.

Alex Noble joined the Hwy. 64 project as an EVS 491 DIS student in Fall 2022. Like Sarah plans to do, Alex is double majoring in Biology and EVS to create the perfect set up for a wildlife conservation academic background. In addition to this project, Alex learned dendrochonology and forest ecology from Dr. Rother as a DIS student in Summer 2022.

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Alex Noble

Holli Nguyen-Huynh

Holli Nguyen-Huynh was an upperclass undergraduate working on the Hwy. 64 project.

Holli joined the Hwy. 64 project as an EVS 491 DIS student for Summer 2022 while she also interned with the NC Coastal Federation. Her overall objective in her EVS major is to make a long-lasting impact as much as she can!

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Holli Nguyen-Huynh

Josie Bryan

Josie Bryan is an upperclass undergraduate working on the Hwy. 64 project.

Josie joined the Hwy. 64 project as an EVS 491 DIS student for Summer 2022. Her career goals include working in animal conservation and this project will give her the perfect taste of that work!

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Josie Bryan

Emily Grimm

Emily Grimm was an upperclass undergraduate working on the Hwy. 64 project.

Emily joined the Hwy. 64 project as an EVS 491 DIS student in Spring 2022. Emily is interested in pursuing a career in wildlife conservation. This experience gave her her first-hand experience in data management and analysis within a project that is using a widely popular method (passive infrared cameras). Emily gained skills in time management, data management on a large scale, and improved her attention to detail in data.

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Emily Grimm

Seanna Jobe

Seanna Jobe was a graduate research assistant working on a collaborative project between Dr. Urbanek and the Bald Head Island Conservancy. She currently is working as the Outreach and Engagement manager for Cape Fear River Watch.

Coyote (Canis latrans) depredation of sea turtle nests is a growing concern in North Carolina and while several designs for predator exclusion cages (PECs) have been published, no one PEC is 100% effective. We hypothesized that PECs may increase the chance of depredation on sea turtle nests if they act as a visual cue to coyotes. We tested this hypothesis using camera traps and two PEC designs on Bald Head Island, North Carolina between 11 May- 28 June 2021. We replicated each PEC design 5 times on South Beach and used West Beach as a control with only camera traps. PECs were not baited or placed over turtle nests so that PECs were the only novel stimuli. We quantified coyote presence and absence, number of coyote events, and aspects of observed coyote behaviors. On average, coyotes were first detected on the third day of each deployment period on both beaches and each camera detected a coyote 1-2 nights during each period. In the week prior to the first PEC deployment, we detected coyotes at a higher proportion of South Beach cameras than on West Beach. There was no difference in coyote detections in the remaining weeks. Similarly, we observed more coyote events on South Beach than on West Beach during the first week of PEC deployment but there was no difference the remaining weeks. Coyotes appeared to spend ~14 sec longer around PECS compared to the camera trap controls, but the difference was not significant. Coyote behavior was similar between sites, wherein the most common behavior was standing nearby. Our results indicate that PECs do not act as a visual cue to coyotes which will provide flexibility for sea turtle management in choosing PEC designs.

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Seanna Jobe

Lauren O'Brien

Lauren O'Brien was a graduate research assistant working on a collaborative project between the Alliance for Cape Fear Trees, the Wilmington Tree Commisssion, UNCW, and the New Hanover County Arboretum. She now works for Ramboll Enviornment and Health, one of the world's leading environmental and health consultancies.

The recent sprawl of urbanization in the Southeastern U.S. perpetuated by population growth and economic success has caused natural landscapes to become vulnerable to degradation. As urban development encroaches on such landscapes, various anthropogenic stressors are introduced including air pollution, land conversion, and alterations in watershed hydrology. Across various disciplines, urban forests have been presented as a method to ameliorate human and environmental health in metropolitan environments. Understanding how to incorporate urban forestry into city design is critical; however, urban planners face difficulties in holistically understanding the diverse set of services urban forests have to offer due to there being multiple environmental fields that manage them. We conducted a review to highlight the ecological functions and human benefits of urban forests and to identify gaps in the literature. We synthesized the findings of research studies in the last 20 years to illuminate the human, abiotic, and biotic services of urban forestry. As environmental quality is rapidly deteriorating in anthropogenic environments, our findings suggest city planners should consider trees as a method of mitigation to alleviate these impacts. Ultimately, when managing urban forests, an interdisciplinary approach involving all levels of governance is necessary to ensure the maximum potential of urban trees. Through this study, the consolidated research can aid in sustainable development and innovation to combat the anthropogenic stressors associated with the sprawl of urbanization.

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Lauren O'Brien

Abby Weinshenker

Abby Weinshenker was the lead graduate student an onging study investigating the use of highway underpasses by black bears in North Carolina. She currently is a Public Relations Specialist for Greenville Water in South 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

Alisha Herndon

Alisha Herndon was an undergraduate working toward a BS in Biology and a BS in Environmental Sciences.

Alisha started in the lab registered as a DIS student on the Highway 64 study and learned valuable skills in time and large-dataset management. She then was hired as a SURCA undergraduate researcher helping us out on the Bald Head Island study with Seanna Jobe. With this new opportunity, Alisha added field experience and was able to network with other wildlife professions (e.g., BHIC staff).

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Alisha Herndon

Sylvana Gregg

Sylvana Gregg was an undergraduate research assistant gaining on the Hwy 64 project for Summer 2021.

Sylvana was a junior majoring in EVS with the Conservation option and supplementing this academic pursuit with a marine biology minor. Her current interests after graduation focus on urban wildlife management and biodiversity in state parks.

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Sylvana Gregg

Anna Vines

Anna Vines was an undergraduate research assistant gaining on the Hwy 64 project for Summer 2021.

Anna wass a senior double-majoring in BIO and EVS which will gave her a great academic background for a future in wildlife conservation and management. Anna has already been gaining hands-on experience at Skywatch Bird Rescue and working on the HWY 64 project will give her research and data management skills. This summer, Anna also had the opportunity to help with the field work for the project!

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Anna Vines

Sierra Koehler

Sierra was an undergraduate EVS student who studyied the efficacy of two wildlife surveys to monitor raccoon abundance in NC for her Honor's thesis.

The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) has been monitoring population abundance trends of raccoons (Procyon lotor) using the Raccoon Field Trial Survey (RFTS) since 1987. The survey is voluntary and relies on raccoon hunting clubs reporting the number of raccoons observed per hour during field trials. Beginning in 2014, the NCWRC began surveying still-hunters through the Deer Hunter Observation Survey (DHOS). The DHOS is also an annual voluntary survey that requests hunters to record the number of each species they observe and duration they spend in their stand each time they hunt. The participation rate of the RFTS has decreased from 40% in 2014 to approximately 25% in 2019, following a long-term trend in declining numbers of raccoon hunters statewide. The goal of this study is to compare the efficacy of the RFTS and DHOS in monitoring raccoons, and to identify potentially beneficial modifications so that the NCWRC only has to survey still-hunters. This will be achieved through examining annual RFTS and DHOS reports spanning the years 2014 through 2019.

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Sierra Koehler

John Reichart

John Reichart was an Honor's freshman getting his feet wet in wildlife research!

John was a quasi-FYRE student who spent Spring 2021 getting a taste of urban wildlife ecology. He learned remote camera set-up and deployment techniques when we set up a few game cameras around the UNCW greenhouse. He also gained skills in image data organization and data collection. In a short few weeks, we found coyotes, raccoons, oppossums, and feral cats roaming UNCW's sidewalks when everyone else was asleep!

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John Reichart

Carly Jarvis

Carly is a dual Master of Science and Master of Public Administration graduate student. She now works for the Division of Wildlife for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

Carly built upon her classes from her Environmental Conservation and Management graduate track by participating in the Hwy 64 study. Like all other students on the project, Carly fine-tuned her observational abilities and increased her capacity in time management as she worked on a large dataset. These skills will no doubt add to her resume as she explores future careers upon graduation. Carly also was able to observed remote game camera maintence when she joined the crew to check on the greenhouse cameras!

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Carly Jarvis

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 Conservationst and Educator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

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.

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Rachael Urbanek

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This site and its contents are maintained by Dr. Rachael Urbanek and were updated on 7 June 2024. Please contact the author if you have any questions, comments, or concerns.