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Hungry for more stories on science, culture and technology?Check out Brain Food: Insights and Discoveries from Northern Arizona. From ground breaking scientific research to global music projects, Brain Food profiles some of the unique projects happening in the region and the interesting people behind them. While there are no new episodes of Brain Food, we will continue to maintain the archive here.

Brain Food: Studying The Mule Deer Of 'Sky Island' On The Kaibab Plateau

NAU/Jackie Thomas

Scientists are trying to project what mule deer on the Kaibab Plateau might need in order to survive a changing climate. The herd lives on a forested "sky island" - an elevated area surrounded by different low-land environments. If the future holds warmer, drier conditions, how would food sources and hiding places change for the deer? That's what Spatial Ecologist Jackie Thomas is trying to find out.

"The baseline data in the long run can be used to understand what today's picture looks like and compare it to what the future's picture may look like," Thomas says. "That could be changes in precipitation, changes in vegetation sources that are available to them and not only understand that these things influence not only mule deer, but all the "community animals" that we have pictures of as well."

In her lab at Northern Arizona University, Thomas is analyzing nearly 200,000 photographs from 100 cameras mounted in trees across the Kaibab Plateau. She's looking at variables like how mule deer are using burned areas, how far they'll travel for water, and what elevations they prefer. Through the images, Thomas is also able to see how they interact with other animals, like squirrels, mountain lions, cows and humans. 

Thomas says, "Mule deer are hunted by mountain lions. The fawns are picked off by coyotes occasionally. So, that's like a top down pressure in the "trophic cascade", and then the bottom up characteristics that influence them are the forage availability and then the structure of the forest that provides them cover for protection from predators, or thermo regulation for temperature control."

Thomas is using her findings to generate a computer model that will identify what forest elements are important to the herd. She says the idea is to try to keep this iconic, historic herd robust in a changing climate. 

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