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Concordia research is making highways safer for small creatures

Four-legged forest dwellers are getting a helping hand from a biology master's student
December 3, 2014
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By Cléa Desjardins

 

Watch for bounding deer! Charging moose! Ambling bears! Animal-crossing signs along Canada’s highways call on motorists to proceed with caution. But what about scurrying porcupines or hopping bunnies? A collision with a caribou can be just as deadly for a driver as swerving to avoid a fox.

Thankfully, a new initiative from Concordia and the Ministère des Transports du Québec is helping creatures great and small get to the other side of the road without incident.

Life is under a highway

Winding its way through the treacherous terrain between Quebec City and the Saguenay, Highway 175 was long seen as a dangerous stretch of road. So in 2012, the Ministère des Transports made some changes by turning two lanes into four and dividing the highway. For people behind the wheel, the wider road is a life-saver. Not so for the animals who now have a lot more pavement cutting across their habitats.

To lessen the negative impacts of the expanded highway on local wildlife, the government installed fencing that leads animals towards passageways — among the first to be built in Quebec — running through culverts under the road so that they can cross safely.

But are those efforts actually effective? What types are best? Are the passageways being used? By what animals? When? That’s where Concordia research comes in.

Tunnel vision

Biology master’s student April Martinig spends her days doing what many of us do for fun: staring at photos of cute animals on the computer. But for Martinig, it’s not about the LOLs — it’s about saving wild animals.

Martinig is poring over the 250,000 digital photographs — and counting — generated by cameras installed in the underground passageways along Highway 175. She painstakingly checks every image to see what kind of animal passed through and when. Her goal is to determine how effective the passageways are for small and medium-sized mammals.

“I see all kinds of animals, from squirrels to raccoons to foxes. If they’re in the forest, they’re on our cameras,” says Martinig, who monitors the wildlife passages year-round using infrared cameras.

What’s the most surprising creature to cross the road? “We saw a bear once! The passageways are made for smaller animals but this one tried to squeeze through anyway,” she says.

Mostly, she’s seeing the tunnels being used by the animals they were meant for. “It’s clear that this project is really working. The passageways are constantly in use, often multiple times a day by the same animals. That means they’re not just passing through, they’re incorporating the passageways into their habitats.”

Not all roads lead to roadkill

So far, the most effective passageway seems to be a wider model, most often used by prey animals like squirrels and voles. “Fifty-eight per cent of the animals we see are what we call ‘micros’ — mostly small rodents. They prefer open spaces so that they can see approaching predators well in advance.”

With an average of 50,000 images coming in per season, Martinig will have plenty more data to examine as her research progresses.

“I’d love to see this project expanded across more of Highway 175, and adapted for the different types of animals we find in other parts of the province, too,” says Martinig, who believes the project and the small animals of Quebec’s forests have a bright future.


Check out this 2012 Radio-Canada report on the project (in French only).
 


Thumbnail by Lee Roberts (Flickr Creative Commons.)



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