MC biology professor, student research American marten in Michigan

Jan. 9, 2014
Contact: Chloe Kennedy, Assistant Director of Communications
865.981.8209; chloe.kennedy@maryvillecollege.edu

In the early 1900s, the American marten became endangered in the state of Michigan due to habitat loss and over-trapping. By 1911, there was only one confirmed sighting of the weasel-like carnivore in the Northern Lower Peninsula of Michigan (NLP).

In the 1980s, 85 marten were reintroduced to the NLP, but little research has been done to monitor the success of the population in the area. Twenty-five years later, how can wildlife biologists ensure the carnivore’s long-term survival in the NLP?

That’s exactly what Dr. David Unger, Maryville College assistant professor of biology, is trying to find out.

In 2011, Unger, who then was teaching at Alderson Broaddus University in West Virginia, teamed up with Dr. Paul Keenlance at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich., who, in collaboration with the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, had begun a project in 2010 that studied the American marten in the NLP. Unger and Keenlance have done wildlife work together since 1995.

According to Unger, a wildlife biologist who specializes in carnivores, there are three aspects that are “really critical” when looking at reintroduced populations: genetic diversity of the population, reproductive success and resources to support the first two aspects.

“What everyone’s been looking into at this point is those first two – what’s the population’s genetics, how are the babies doing and what’s the habitat?” said Unger.

Haskins researches American marten prey availability

Maryville College senior David Lee Haskins ’14 has had an interest in science for as long as he can remember – as a child, he would tell his parents that he wanted to be a “bug scientist” when he grew up. When he came to Maryville College, Haskins became interested in wildlife biology but didn’t think it was a viable career option.

“I was told by an interim professor that you could make money doing wildlife work, and I had no idea,” said Haskins, who is from Philadelphia, Tenn. A 2010 graduate of Loudon High School, Haskins is the son of David and Lisa Haskins.

Meanwhile, Unger, who joined the Maryville College faculty in fall 2012, had been looking for a Maryville College student who would be interested in working on the American marten project in Michigan.

The two began talking, and it quickly became evident to Unger that Haskins was the perfect student for the project.

“There was something about him,” Unger said. “He was enthusiastic, he showed immediate interest as soon as I suggested the project, and he was tenacious – once the door got cracked, he kicked it in full-force.”

After receiving funding from the Maryville College Center for Calling & Career’s Competitive Summer Internship program and the Appalachian College Association’s Ledford Grant for undergraduate research, Haskins and Unger headed to the Manistee National Forest in lower Michigan in May.

As his Senior Study topic, Haskins’ research goal was to investigate the small mammal prey base of the American marten that has been reintroduced to the NLP of Michigan.

One of the distinctive features of a Maryville education, the Senior Study requirement calls for students to complete a two-semester research and writing project that is guided by a faculty supervisor. According to the College’s catalog, the Senior Study program “facilitates the scholarship of discovery within the major field and integrates those methods with the educational goals fostered through the Maryville Curriculum.”

He conducted his research in the four habitat types known to be important to marten – Deciduous, conifer, mixed conifer-deciduous and mixed oak.

“When we first got there, we had to figure out where we were actually going to trap, so we used known locations and randomly selected areas where we would trap in those habitat types,” Haskins explained.

Between June 1 and July 13, he set 25 live traps per site on a nightly basis and checked the traps every morning.

“When an animal was inside, I would identify it, weigh it and tag it with an ear tag,” Haskins said. “Each ear tag was unique with a number, so if I caught the animal again, I wouldn’t be counting it twice. Some we got to know pretty well, because they kept returning to the trap.”

At the conclusion of the trapping period, Haskins found that species diversity differed across all habitat types. The white-footed mouse was the most abundant small mammal captured across all habitat types suggested, followed by the Eastern chipmunk, the short-tailed shrew, the Woodland jumping mouse, the Meadow jumping mouse, the thirteen-lined ground squirrel, the southern flying squirrel, the American red squirrel and the meadow vole.

The highest prey densities were found in mixed conifer-deciduous sites, Haskins said.

“In terms of relative abundance, the amount of prey actually available was observed highest in one habitat type,” he said. “Surprisingly, when compared to marten locations we had, they didn’t really match up. They weren’t selecting the habitat type that had the most prey.”

Haskins said that, as is the case with many research projects, there is more work to be done.

“While we got an idea of what prey in terms of abundance and diversity are in certain habitat types, but it was just touching the surface,” he said.

Unger said the purpose of Haskins’ work is to ask the question “How should we be managing the habitats if we want to support marten?”

“A lot of this work was done on national forest land,” Unger said. “What Dave’s findings showed was that we really need to be managing for some mixed forest. It’s a way to help agencies know how to manage their land.”

For Unger, his role in the Haskins’ project was two-fold. While he had his own research objectives on the marten project, his main role was to mentor Haskins and get him to a point where he could conduct the research independently.

“Once Dave was off and running, I don’t think it would be an understatement or inappropriate to say that I was his technician,” said Unger, who recommended his advisee’s Senior Study, titled “Prey Base Species Composition of American Marten (Martes americana) in the Northern Lower Peninsula of Michigan,” as an exemplary thesis for the library’s permanent collection. The thesis was unanimously voted as exemplary by the College’s Natural Science Division.

“I was his help, and he ran the project from top to bottom. I think that’s probably what’s most gratifying – to see a student go from a student to a scientist, and that’s what Dave did this summer.”

Graduate-quality potential

Unger said it is “very uncommon” for an undergraduate to pursue this level of research. Typically, undergraduates only assist on similar projects, he said.

“If he had another year of data, he could publish this, and it would be a master’s-level project,” he said.

Still, Haskins has no doubts that his research has “given him an edge” in his graduate school search. He has applied to several graduate programs, and he has received positive feedback about his research from several professors.

“Being able to say, ‘I just got back from Michigan, doing small mammal research collaboratively with Grand Valley State University and my school, and I did this as a rising senior’ – I feel like it definitely puts you ahead of the game,” Haskins said. “It makes them look at it and say ‘He’s definitely serious.’ It’s helped me out a lot – not only with that but with my confidence, too.”

Additionally, he had the opportunity to present his research at the Wildlife Society Meetings in Milwaukee, Wis., in October, which was “definitely one of the best experiences of my life,” Haskins said.

“It not only gives you a chance to learn so much more about the field you’re interested in, but also talk to people who are actually doing it, tell them who you are, give them your information and in my case, actually present my data,” Haskins said. “I also learned how to network, which Dr. Unger has made clear is extremely important in this field.”

During the conference, he also met several professors from graduate schools to which he has applied.

“I had a professor at the Wildlife Society ask me what year Dave was in his master’s degree, after looking at his poster,” Unger said. “That was high props.”

Haskins also had the opportunity to present his research at the 16th Annual Appalachian College Association Summit in Knoxville in October. 

A foundation for future research

Unger said Haskins’ research provided a foundation for future undergraduate research opportunities on the American marten project.

Another phase of the project, which hasn’t begun yet, will focus on marten prey use, Unger said.

“Dave was asking ‘Given that there are these habitats that we know marten use, what prey is available to them?’” Unger said. “The second step is collecting scat and marten prey remains and asking ‘What are the marten actually using?’”

At the conclusion of the second phase, Haskins and the other students who conducted research on the project will be part of a collective publication on “marten prey use in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan,” Unger said.

“The idea is that rather than a single opportunity for one student doing master’s work, we can do a project of similar caliber but with multiple undergraduates benefiting,” Unger said. “And that’s what’s unique about Maryville College and what we’re trying to do here.”

The next student’s project will be more challenging, because he or she will be building on Haskins’ project, Unger said.

Ultimately, the goal is providing good research opportunities and preparing students to become scientists.

“It’s a combination of Dave fulfilling his goals and dreams and through Maryville building a program that will provide not just opportunities for Dave, but then provide students for graduate programs, for state agencies and for federal agencies that are good, solid, safe and competent scientists,” Unger said. “That’s the ultimate goal.”


Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state‘s third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for its academic rigor and its focus on the liberal arts, Maryville is where students come to stretch their minds, stretch themselves and learn how to make a difference in the world. Total enrollment for the fall 2014 semester was 1,168.