Local expert on the scent
Over the past four years Luanne Johnson has spent a lot of time, mostly in the evenings, on the beaches of Martha's Vineyard tracking and studying skunks. Her research, carried out for her doctoral dissertation, "Behavioral Ecology of Striped Skunks Inhabiting Coastal Waterbird Nesting Areas," has attracted the attention of national media, and she established herself as a sought-out expert on skunks.
"I was a shorebird biologist for a long time and skunks are one of their predators," Ms. Johnson says, explaining the origin of her motivation. "Not a lot of the research on skunks had been done on the shore."
Photo by M.C. Wallo
She was the focus of an article that appeared on the front page of the New York Times Science section in 2006, which resulted in her being approached by PBS to appear in a segment on skunks in its Nature series. She was also a featured guest on National Public Radio in 2007 and a guest on PBS's kids show "Fetch" in 2008.
The PBS Nature show, "Is That Skunk?" aired last month, and has brought more local attention to the biologist. (The one-hour show can be viewed online at pbs.org.)
Ms. Johnson explains that the show was taped during the conclusion of her field research. It took the crew two days of following the researcher on her daily prowls to get the requisite shots. She explains, "I told them I couldn't stage anything. I don't drug skunks for fun."
Each spring Ms. Johnson set out traps at dusk and returned to retrieve specimens at dawn. She estimates that she collared about 50 skunks and tagged about 150. During the summer months, she did her beach tracking at night with the aid of a portable radio and a night-vision telescope. She would observe the skunks' eating habits and would also follow their movements. She was surprised to find that skunks travel as far as two miles during their nightly foraging excursions.
Ms. Johnson, who first came to the Vineyard in 1992, and spent four years as a biologist for The Trustees of Reservations, returned to Martha's Vineyard in 2004 to work on her dissertation. She tracked skunks in three beach locations - Dogfish Bar in Aquinnah, Wasque Point on Chappaquiddick, and Long Point Wildlife Refuge in West Tisbury. She set out traps at night and returned at dawn to examine and attach radio transmitter collars to her specimens.
The PBS crew followed her for two days last spring and filmed her checking her traps and working on a female skunk. In her scenes on the show, Ms. Johnson is shown sedating the animal, using a syringe attached to a long stick. She then measures the skunk, cleans it of ticks and removes the radio transmitter collar, with which she fitted it at the beginning of her study.
The aim of the biologist's research was twofold. She was trying to determine whether or not skunks are a threat to Island shorebirds. It had already been determined that skunks eat bird eggs, but erecting fences has effectively prevented predators from raiding nests.
More of an issue was the possibility that skunks were going after chicks of protected species. Contributing to the problem is discarded food on the beach. According to Ms. Johnson, skunks typically limit their beach hunting to the dunes or the intertidal areas where they search for small invertebrates. Foraging for human leftovers in between puts them in direct contact with the shorebirds. Ms. Johnson stresses the importance of the "carry in, carry out" policy.