Budding Ecologist Ellie Harris '18 Gets Rare Glimpses of Local Wildlife

Student Ellie Harris sits next to a motion sensor camera at the BFS.

With some cameras, Ellie Harris ’18 regularly catches coyotes, mourning doves, woodrats, owls, squirrels, even a bobcat or two, all at the Robert J. Bernard Biological Field Station (BFS), located about a mile north of campus.

The BFS has a collection of more than 1.8 million photos captured from 28 motion-sensor cameras located throughout the field station, an 86-acre resource of The Claremont Colleges. Among her many favorite shots are a bobcat in the night, a curious coyote staring straight at the camera and two rabbits scampering through the brush.

It’s all part of her biology senior thesis, seeking to understand how vertebrate animals respond to burn areas. 

In 2013, a fire burned 17 acres of the field station on the north side of Foothill Boulevard between Dartmouth and Mills Avenue. In May 2017, a smaller fire burned about four acres near College Avenue, north of Foothill.

There’s already a lot of research out there on how plants respond to fire. For example some native Southern California plants require fire to drop or open their seeds.

Harris wanted to know how animals respond to fire. She is trying to understand which animals use burn areas, which don’t and piece together why.

The BFS cameras have been collecting images for three years. As a sophomore, Harris helped a senior with her thesis research and decided to continue in the same vein – albeit, focusing on a different question.

“You need years of data to show trends and the great thing about this project is that there are years of data. Usually, an ecology thesis is hard if you’re starting something new,” she says. But with the data at hand, Harris got to work going out to the BFS diligently throughout the fall semester, writing a first draft of her thesis and thinking through the results when she went home to Seattle, Washington, for the winter break.

One of the best parts of her research has been the element of surprise and mystery: what will she find with each set of new pictures? Photos are taken automatically whenever the camera senses movement, day or night.

“Every time you go through a photo series, you have to figure out what the story is, you’ll see a photo a woodrat carrying something and it’s like a puzzle you have to piece together,” she says, explaining that her research shows that the woodrats, which she says are a bit cuter than most rats, strongly prefer unburned sites to build their massive, two-foot high nests.

Harris’ research has also shown that most birds show a clear trend of favoring unburned areas with tall sage scrub that provide more coverage from predators like hawks.

An exception is the mourning dove, which has shown a strong preference for the burned sites. Their legs are not very strong, explains Harris, so burned areas are easier to walk through than places with dense underbrush. “They eat a lot of seeds, and after a fire, there’s a lot of exposed seeds so they have a new food source – plus it’s easier for them to navigate through the burn site.”

From the Lab to the Wild

Harris is as focused on her research as she is on her goal of becoming a wildlife veterinarian – so she knew she needed to take biology when she arrived at Pomona four years ago. After taking Intro to Biology with Professor of Biology Clarissa Cheney, she found the hands-on approach with the laboratory hours highly appealing.

“I just love the small class sizes you get in upper division, and the lab experience! In your second semester of the introduction biology sequence, you’re asked to do independent projects at the end of the semester, and that was a huge part: the freedom to design my own experiments.”

And then there are the field trips – another biology perk. During her junior year, Harris took Avian Ecology with Professor of Biology Nina Karnovsky, who is now her thesis advisor. Karnovsky took the class to the L.A. County Museum of Natural History where Harris and the class got a behind-the-scenes tour of a “massive collection” comprised of tall stacks of drawers full of birds. “They showed us how they make the specimens and that was something that as a regular person I wouldn’t have been given access to do, but my professor set that up and gave us that opportunity. That’s the norm.”

During her third year, Harris took a semester off from Pomona to travel to Cuenca, Ecuador, where she volunteered at a wildlife rescue center. One of the requirements for veterinary school, says Harris, is working a certain number of hours directly with animals.

In Ecuador, she got plenty of experience – “helping with everything,” she says. Harris fed animals and cleaned exhibits.  She assisted in many procedures, surgeries and necropsies, including administering medication. She even became a surrogate mother to a rescued baby wooly monkey she named Anita.

“That whole experience, I didn’t know what I was getting into, but I had good feeling and now I can’t wait to go back,” says Harris who plans to apply to veterinary school and go on to work with injured wildlife. “This is basically what I want to do with my life.”