Copyright ©2012 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now, before we get to this next story, a fair warning: The topic is a little unsettling. But we hope it might make your commute a little more interesting - because we've all seen it; some unlucky animal that didn't quite make it across the highway. We call it roadkill. But one wildlife ecologist says that these animal accidents can actually teach us a lot. North Country Public Radio's Sarah Harris has the story.

SARAH HARRIS, BYLINE: Admittedly, this is a weird sight: two women standing by the side of the road, smartphones out, peering down at a dead, bloody and smelly skunk.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC NOISES)

HARRIS: Oh, wow. You can really smell it.

(LAUGHTER)

DANIELLE GARNEAU: So this guy must've gotten hit; and flipped over onto the edge, here. Our first step is to pull up EpiCollect, and then we'll go to the "new entry" option. And the first thing I like to do is to tap, to use my current location. And you see - it pops up with the latitude/longitude, and you hit OK.

HARRIS: Danielle Garneau, a wildlife ecologist at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, takes a picture of the dead skunk. And then we input a lot of data: time of day, the road's speed limit, whether the carcass has been scavenged.

GARNEAU: Precipitation is multiple choice. I don't believe it rained here yesterday, so I'm going to say none. In terms of temperature, we'll get that when we get back in the car; it's on my dash. State is New York.

HARRIS: When we finish, all this data gets sent to the project server. And the roadkill appears as a red pushpin on a digital map. The program Garneau's using is called EpiCollect. It's free, and anybody with a smartphone can use it. Roadkill may not be glamorous, but Garneau says these dead critters carry valuable information.

GARNEAU: We're looking, at a fine scale, at patterns of animal movement. Maybe we can pick up migratory patterns. Maybe we can see a phenology change. And also, you know, in the long term, if many of these animals are threatened - or they're in a decline - the hope would be that we could share this information with people that can make changes.

HARRIS: Over the course of the afternoon, we log a lot of dead animals. We see a red squirrel with a deep gash across its back. We see an almost unrecognizable raccoon.

GARNEAU: Oh, man. This is just - like a pancake.

HARRIS: Some of it's fresh, and some of it's been pretty picked over.

GARNEAU: Scavenged, pulled apart, rained on, frozen.

HARRIS: It's hard not to get a little philosophical about all the dead animals.

GARNEAU: We're embedded in their world, and they're embedded in our world; and the boundaries are kind of blurry.

HARRIS: By the end of the afternoon, my eyes feel sharper - and I'm noticing wildlife. People talk a lot about technology cutting us off from nature. But tracking roadkill is really the opposite. You engage with the world around you - even if it is a smelly skunk by the side of the road.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Harris.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: This is NPR News.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.