Normally when you think of roadkill (if you do at all), you might think of those tacky cookbooks found in some outdoor stores or gift shops with recipes for “found critters”. They have names like Gourmet Style Road Kill Cooking and Other Fine Recipes, Road Kill Cooking Redneck Style and More Tails From the Fast Lane (Vol II), or Quick-Fix Cooking with Roadkill. You may even live in a state where it is totally legal to collect roadkill for these dining adventures.
However, roadkill and collecting it does have some serious scientific purposes. An article in today’s Wall Street Journal discussed roadkill and how wildlife and conservation biologists use it for a variety of purposes from deciding where to put warning signs to avoid car-deer collisions to using it as bait to attract scavengers so as to test their DNA.
If “it’s not road pizza…it has lots of potential future use,” said Greg Pauly, assistant curator of herpetology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, who often carries ethanol-filled test tubes to preserve tissue samples, Ziploc bags and a cooler in case he comes across a meaty roadside specimen. A rattlesnake he found is now part of a Los Angeles biodiversity exhibit at the museum, and some finds are powering his research on how gopher-snake diets have changed thanks to urbanization.
At the Field Museum in Chicago, scientists are using tissues from car-trodden barred owls to study genetics and evolution. These birds have expanded rapidly across the Great Plains and into the Pacific Northwest. They can’t always beat traffic, but they’re out-competing the spotted owl, which is endangered in the region.
“It’s a major conservation issue,” said John Bates, the Field Museum’s associate curator of birds. “What makes barred owls so successful? We’re still looking…15, 20 years ago when salvage work started going, nobody was thinking about the fact we might get genetic data from these samples.”
Dr. Pete Bloom, a biologist in Santa Ana, California, uses it to study turkey vultures. The video below shows his set-up to trap these vultures so he can take blood samples.