Undergraduate Research

Undergraduate Research

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Emma Winterhalter
Emma Winterhalter

Vertebrate Succession in Carrion Food Webs

Succession is the directional process of change within an ecological community over time. Carrion, or the decaying flesh of dead animals, is an important basal resource with many vertebrates specializing as scavengers, predators of scavengers, both scavengers and predators, or animals responding to plant community changes caused by carrion. However, little is known about vertebrate succession in the carrion food web as most studies only consider scavengers being affected. Emma Winterhalter, a wildlife, fisheries and aquaculture major, monitored vertebrate use of carrion with camera traps to document vertebrate succession in an undergraduate research project. In July 2016, she and fellow researchers distributed varying amounts of donated feral swine carrion in five circular 20 m2 plots at John Starr forest, Mississippi. Each plot was equipped with a camera trap taking photographs of animals using carrion. A clear pattern of vertebrate succession emerged. Scavengers (e.g. vultures, coyotes) arrived within hours and likely were eating primarily carrion. Insect abundance also increased exponentially stimulating the arrival of their predators (e.g. armadillos, brown thrashers) around five days after carrion deployment. Vertebrates that were predators and scavengers (e.g. opossums) consumed carrion and insects, and were consistently present from deployment for three months. White-tailed deer and gray squirrels, which were not consuming carcasses or insects, appeared last, well after carrion was fully decomposed. Interestingly, vertebrate succession in the carrion food web closely followed the succession of resource availability with scavengers arriving first to consume carrion, predators second to consume scavengers, scavenger/predators present for both resources, and other nonscavenger, nonpredator vertebrates responding to plant community changes after decomposition. The data demonstrates that carrion food webs extend much further than to just scavengers.


News / Recognition

Undergraduate Research Symposium

Katherine Abell, a wildlife, fisheries, and aquaculture major, and Zachary Senneff, a forestry major, were among the winners of the 2014 MSU Undergraduate Research Symposium. Abell placed first in the community engagement and social sciences categories and Senneff placed second in the biological sciences and engineering category.

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