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Are We Stressing Out Coyotes? Cape Students Helping Find The Answer

Nauset Lighthouse Charter School students search for coyote scat.
Peter Trull
Coyotes on Cape Cod

Conservation biologist Austin Gallagher wants to know how much stress coyotes on Cape Cod are feeling, and whether it's worse when they're in densely populated areas than when they’re out in more natural settings. Middle school students at the Nauset Lighthouse Charter School in Orleans are collecting samples for the research, and I've been invited to tag along. And that is how I've ended up spending a windy, early spring afternoon combing the back side of the dunes at Nauset Beach for coyote poop, or scat, as it's more formally known.

"Dog scat generally is yellow and orange like dog chow. It’s cereal," explains Peter Trull, seventh grade science teacher and leader of the environmental science seminar. "What we’re looking for with coyotes is elongated balls of fur, really. They eat meadow voles. Small rodents, small mice. So their scat is hairy, curled, gray."

No surprise, we find a lot more dog poop than coyote scat. But the explanation is clearly for my benefit. The students are already expert at telling the difference.

We also spot lots of canine footprints but, again, Trull's students have no problem distinguishing between dog and coyote.

"You can tell because coyote tracks go in a straight line," says Emma. "With dogs, they’re all messy."

The students keep me running from find to find. In addition to dog and coyote scat, there are deer tracks, and plentiful evidence of birds - pellets (yes, more poop), skeletons, and even a live red-tailed hawk.

Bird sightings aside, coyote scat is really what they’re all after, and with the help of the class, I eventually find my own sample to add to their collection.

All of the scat they gather this spring is being sent to Gallagher, who will test it for levels of stress hormones. Each sample is labeled with a precise location and an estimated age, so that Gallagher can determine whether coyotes are more stressed when they’re closer to humans. The results won’t be known or published for some time, but the students don’t seem to mind.

"I think it’s really exciting because a ton of people are going to read this," says Jay Pinetti. "This is going to be meaningful and they may remember the few kids that did this research."

We here at Living Lab look forward to seeing that publication. Thanks so much to Mr. Trull and his environmental science seminar for a fun afternoon, and for teaching us the difference between dog  poop and coyote scat.