Sharks, wolves, and bears, oh my!
Sharks, wolves, bears, moose, deer –John Benson has traveled the country as a wildlife biologist. Dr. Benson is an assistant professor in the School of Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His current projects include studying mule deer in Nebraska and mountain lions in the greater Los Angeles area.
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[00:00:00.450]Yes, this is East Campus.
[00:00:01.780]It's the smaller of the two campuses--
[00:00:03.850]John Benson's office has a bookcase, a desk, computer.
[00:00:07.530]Fairly sparsely furnished.
[00:00:09.370]But his lab is the great outdoors.
[00:00:11.640]The woods of Canada, or the plains of Nebraska,
[00:00:15.530]or the ocean of California,
[00:00:17.760]wherever we happen to be working.
[00:00:19.450]I'm Mary Jane Bruce, and this is Faculty 101.
[00:00:23.470]Okay, you should switch partners now.
[00:00:24.790]To be able to inspire young people.
[00:00:28.120]Today's your finals.
[00:00:29.090]It's rally rewarding.
[00:00:30.260]I love the students.
[00:00:32.230]Welcome to Faculty 101,
[00:00:34.470]life hacks and success stories from Nebraska faculty.
[00:00:39.840]First up, orientation.
[00:00:41.920]Who is John Benson, and what does he do?
[00:00:45.790]I'm John Benson, J-O-H-N B-E-N--
[00:00:48.230]Dr. Benson is an Assistant Professor
[00:00:50.130]in the School of Natural Resources
[00:00:51.770]at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.
[00:00:53.920]His research takes him outside to study animals.
[00:00:58.100]Are you in the water there?
[00:00:59.240]I'm not in the water (laughs).
[00:01:00.530]I'm on the boat.
[00:01:02.070]Dr. Benson pulls up a video file
[00:01:04.040]on his computer from a research project
[00:01:06.270]studying the population of Great White Sharks
[00:01:09.170]off the coast of California.
[00:01:10.780]This is all taken from a GoPro.
[00:01:11.900]We've got GoPros on a stick that we can
[00:01:14.840]put underwater as the shark comes by the boat--
[00:01:17.490]Researcher hope to learn more about what's
[00:01:19.730]happening with the shark population.
[00:01:21.780]Is it increasing or dropping, and why?
[00:01:24.420]Sharks are elusive, hard to study, but amazing to see.
[00:01:28.340]I think it was my second day on the job.
[00:01:29.970]I'm staring out across the ocean,
[00:01:32.630]and 20 yards in front of the boat,
[00:01:34.210]a White Shark just fully breached out of the water.
[00:01:36.870]Full separation from the water with a gleaming white belly.
[00:01:41.470]As a PhD student, Dr. Benson tracked
[00:01:44.270]wolves in Ontario, Canada,
[00:01:48.110]and studied how hybridization
[00:01:50.070]affects survival and reproduction.
[00:01:52.521]And so, then I actually crawl inside the den.
[00:01:54.770]Wearing a headlamp, Dr. Benson crawled
[00:01:56.950]underground through tunnels so small
[00:01:59.340]they barely accommodate a human being.
[00:02:01.560]You can just wriggle through.
[00:02:03.390]At the bottom, a litter of pups.
[00:02:05.590]They're a little bit bitey and growly,
[00:02:07.040]but we handle them with gloves.
[00:02:08.770]And once you get them out of the den,
[00:02:10.720]they get quite calm.
[00:02:12.510]So, you pull them out?
[00:02:13.970]We pull them out and--
[00:02:15.570]Take a DNA sample, insert an electronic tag--
[00:02:19.034]And then, just release them back into the den.
[00:02:21.130]In Louisiana, Dr. Benson helped introduce
[00:02:23.580]Black Bears to hardwood forests and swamps,
[00:02:26.550]a project that involved peering into a hollow
[00:02:29.140]Cyprus Tree to track a mama bear and her cub.
[00:02:34.740]The bear might be literally right there in your face,
[00:02:37.200]or it might be 60 feet, 70 feet,
[00:02:39.130]down all the way at the bottom.
[00:02:40.500]So, you never quite knew what you were gonna get into.
[00:02:44.680]It's been a career filled with adventure,
[00:02:47.560]but nothing compares with a project
[00:02:49.670]that involved catching moose calves,
[00:02:52.090]and dealing with a very angry mother.
[00:02:54.720]Bears, Mountain Lions, Sharks,
[00:02:56.700]none of them are quite as terrifying as a female moose.
[00:03:00.340]They're a prey species, so presumably,
[00:03:02.290]their evolutionary response is to defend
[00:03:04.590]those calves against predators or any threats.
[00:03:07.070]And so, we did most of them with a helicopter,
[00:03:10.340]if it's out in an open area, like a marsh.
[00:03:12.296](helicopter blades spinning)
[00:03:13.710]And so, the helicopter pilot could make sure
[00:03:15.930]that he kept the cow away from me
[00:03:17.600]while I was working up the calves.
[00:03:19.470]But if they're in the tall timber in the thick woods,
[00:03:21.600]then we can't bring the helicopter in.
[00:03:23.330]And so, a few of us would just hike in and try
[00:03:26.330]to scare her away from her calves
[00:03:28.000]with varying degrees of success.
[00:03:30.240]We always succeeded in getting the calves,
[00:03:32.100]but we certainly succeeded in giving
[00:03:34.820]ourselves a really good scare a few times too.
[00:03:38.590]Next, lab work.
[00:03:40.140]We go deeper into Dr. Benson's research
[00:03:42.440]at the University of Nebraska.
[00:03:46.230]Dr. Benson's current research focuses
[00:03:48.430]on Mule Deer in Nebraska.
[00:03:50.590]Some populations of Mule Deer are doing well.
[00:03:53.560]Others are struggling.
[00:03:55.410]The question that we have and that Game and Parks have,
[00:03:58.060]who we work with on this project is,
[00:04:01.530]why do we see these different dynamics?
[00:04:03.330]What's causing it?
[00:04:04.380]What's limiting these populations?
[00:04:06.590]And that'll help us understand, maybe,
[00:04:08.750]what management can be done to
[00:04:10.730]have healthy populations of Mule Deer,
[00:04:12.650]and populations that people could hunt sustainably,
[00:04:15.430]and not have any worries about negatively
[00:04:17.960]affecting the population.
[00:04:19.440]Dr. Benson also collaborates
[00:04:21.380]with the National Parks Service
[00:04:22.770]on a long-term study of Mountain Lions
[00:04:25.090]in the Greater Los Angeles area.
[00:04:27.700]They're certainly not encroaching on the area
[00:04:29.560]as much as we've encroached on their area.
[00:04:31.470]So, Mountain Lions are native to the Los Angeles area.
[00:04:35.700]But now, we've got the second largest city
[00:04:37.880]in the United States there.
[00:04:39.380]But amazingly, Mountain Lions have hung on in a few
[00:04:42.860]places in the Greater LA area.
[00:04:44.630]We even have a Mountain Lion that
[00:04:46.320]is being tracked within the city limits of Los Angeles.
[00:04:48.780]But we're mostly studying a population
[00:04:50.930]that's been isolated in the Santa Monica mountains,
[00:04:53.530]just northwest of Los Angeles,
[00:04:55.023](Mountain Lion growling)
[00:04:56.920]and looking at genetics, and survival, and reproduction,
[00:05:00.140]and how those interact and what it means
[00:05:02.020]for the long-term persistence of that population.
[00:05:04.590]Most of the projects I work on are either
[00:05:06.840]with hunted species, like Mule Deer here in Nebraska,
[00:05:09.660]or species that are threatened or endangered
[00:05:12.520]due to things other than hunting, but they're declining.
[00:05:14.900]So in both cases, we want to figure out what
[00:05:17.300]are their population dynamics.
[00:05:20.398]So, what are the limiting factors
[00:05:22.450]for this population and what management actions
[00:05:24.590]could we take to reverse those things?
[00:05:29.280]Now, it's time for a pop quiz.
[00:05:31.440]Random questions, life hacks, and wisdom for all of us.
[00:05:36.950]What was your path to this career?
[00:05:39.900]From a young age, I was fascinated by wildlife,
[00:05:42.450]and animals in general.
[00:05:44.140]And so, I had spent a lot of time growing
[00:05:46.340]up out in the woods, looking at sign from wildlife,
[00:05:49.660]catching frogs, that kind of thing.
[00:05:51.300]Fast forward to my 20s, and I was looking for something
[00:05:54.580]fun and adventurous to do, where I could also,
[00:05:57.150]hopefully, make a difference for conservation.
[00:06:00.230]And I started looking into college programs.
[00:06:02.240]And what do you know?
[00:06:03.073]You can actually go and major in it.
[00:06:04.890]And right away, I knew I'd found the right career for me.
[00:06:08.825]Why is wildlife research important?
[00:06:12.120]Two main reasons.
[00:06:13.010]One, I just think it's important for us
[00:06:14.820]to understand the natural world
[00:06:16.440]and to understand the world around us.
[00:06:18.400]But more practically, human activities
[00:06:21.220]and human actions can sometimes
[00:06:24.230]negatively affect wildlife populations.
[00:06:26.080]And we see that in a lot of ways.
[00:06:27.620]Sometimes, it's through direct interactions,
[00:06:30.173]Other times, it's less direct interactions,
[00:06:32.870]things like habitat fragmentation
[00:06:34.700]or habitat destruction for development.
[00:06:37.110]And so, really wildlife management
[00:06:39.260]came about because we realized
[00:06:41.300]if we wanted to keep hunting populations,
[00:06:43.220]we were gonna need to do it scientifically.
[00:06:45.680]What is a research question you have to answer someday?
[00:06:48.409]Probably, I'm really interested and fascinated
[00:06:51.410]by large carnivores and large predators
[00:06:55.920]persisting in human-dominated landscapes.
[00:06:58.680]And so, our work with Mountain Lions
[00:07:00.340]in Los Angeles and the Greater Los Angeles area
[00:07:03.200]has been really focused on looking
[00:07:04.710]at what are the threats to these populations?
[00:07:07.380]How do those affect viability?
[00:07:09.250]And how can we make changes to the way
[00:07:12.210]we manage the landscape to try to counterbalance those?
[00:07:17.210]Most of what we know about, say,
[00:07:18.710]predator-prey interactions or just the overall
[00:07:21.210]roll of a carnivore within the ecological community
[00:07:24.660]comes from very remote places.
[00:07:26.410]So, my question and the question
[00:07:28.040]on a lot of people's mind is,
[00:07:29.760]do what we know about predator-prey interactions
[00:07:32.600]and the role of large carnivores in those ecosystems,
[00:07:35.230]does that hold in areas that are heavily impacted by humans?
[00:07:38.660]And the answer is, we just don't know at this point.
[00:07:41.020]Switching gears a little bit,
[00:07:42.100]what would be your favorite life hack
[00:07:44.010]or advice for students.
[00:07:46.580]Yeah, I guess, just real simply just
[00:07:50.880]find something to do that you enjoy,
[00:07:54.390]that you think is worth doing, and then, just be all in.
[00:07:58.370]Yeah, and try to do it to the fullest.
[00:08:00.910]And to try to not let doubt, or fear,
[00:08:04.170]or the fact that it might sound crazy
[00:08:05.760]what you're proposing to do
[00:08:07.310]or what somebody's asking you to do
[00:08:08.770]get in the way of trying to do it.
[00:08:11.530]Certainly, I think the most rewarding
[00:08:13.520]and exciting things I've been able to achieve
[00:08:16.370]were all things that sounded a little ridiculous
[00:08:18.610]and crazy when first proposed.
[00:08:20.440]And I think you get through a few of those
[00:08:22.460]experiences and you realize that really,
[00:08:24.870]anything's possible if you put your mind to it.
[00:08:27.400]What makes you hopeful about the future?
[00:08:29.650]Well, something I've talked to my students
[00:08:32.000]about in class, when we're talking about conservation,
[00:08:35.890]conservation biology, it's really easy to get
[00:08:38.700]pessimistic, feel negatively.
[00:08:40.660]Certainly, no other species that we're aware
[00:08:43.060]of has ever impacted the world around them
[00:08:45.230]and other species around them as negatively as humans have.
[00:08:48.420]On the other hand, what I try to tell the students is,
[00:08:52.020]no other species has ever had the ability,
[00:08:55.070]and more importantly, the motivation to actually try to
[00:08:58.760]reverse those changes, and actually putting as much
[00:09:02.060]effort as we do into conserving other species,
[00:09:05.540]trying to increase populations that are threatened.
[00:09:08.100]We have government agencies, non-profit organizations,
[00:09:11.230]academic research geared towards conservation.
[00:09:14.860]So, I think that's the one thing you can
[00:09:16.700]look at and be optimistic about is,
[00:09:18.920]we at least, we have the potential to change
[00:09:22.170]what we're doing and try to figure out new
[00:09:23.680]ways to do things.
[00:09:26.190]And finally, graduation day.
[00:09:28.220]Dr. Benson leaves us with a final thought.
[00:09:33.250]Wildlife conservation faces daunting challenges.
[00:09:36.450]But John Benson is excited by the potential
[00:09:38.820]to make positive change.
[00:09:40.770]He's never forgotten a moment in Louisiana
[00:09:43.300]where he was following up on efforts
[00:09:45.030]to reintroduce bears to the area.
[00:09:47.420]Well, the last winter of the project,
[00:09:48.773]I was visiting a den for one
[00:09:50.650]of the females I had reintroduced.
[00:09:52.050]And so far, no males, no reproduction had occurred.
[00:09:55.060]And I was sneaking into the den
[00:09:56.490]and I heard a cub crying from the den.
[00:09:58.220]So, we knew she had bred in the reintroduction site,
[00:10:01.180]and the project was starting to be a success.
[00:10:03.100]So, that was very memorable.
[00:10:07.770]That's it for Faculty 101.
[00:10:09.370]Thanks to John Benson for sharing his experiences with us.
[00:10:12.860]In the show notes, we link to a video
[00:10:14.540]where you can see sharks, and wolves, and Dr. Benson.
[00:10:17.930]Next time on the podcast--
[00:10:19.580]The robot has a couple of arms and tools--
[00:10:22.200]How a small town kid went from tinkering
[00:10:24.680]in his family hardware store to building surgical robots.
[00:10:29.880]Faculty 101 is produced
[00:10:31.630]by the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.
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