Daily Bruin: Hands-on project immerses students in wildlife training

Originally published by Karen Duryea in the Daily Bruin

Almost 200 years ago, the land that UCLA students now trek over to get to class was a vast grassland, covered by coastal sage scrub, chapparal, sycamore and oak woodlands, with three seasonal streams cutting through what would be the UCLA campus.

As the construction of new buildings flourished through the years, accommodating the influx of students, the vegetation was covered by stretches of concrete.

Aside from the few acres surrounding the Chancellor’s Residence, very little of UCLA’s wildlife remains today, except for a four-acre hillside of fragrant coastal sage scrub.

This small patch of land, which geography lecturer Rudi Mattoni describes as the “last wild spot in Westwood,” is the site of a hands-on project for 15 students enrolled in his bioresource management course, Geography 123.

At first glance, the slope of greenery located near the intersection of Veteran Avenue and Sunset Boulevard may seem inconsequential, but to the students of Mattoni’s upper-division course, the patch of coastal sage scrub is a veritable classroom and teaching aid.

The 15 student volunteers – out of a class of approximately 70 – chose to monitor the plot of land in lieu of writing a term paper. Some said the project offered them hands-on training which is missing from most classroom settings.

“UC schools are traditionally book schools,” said Karl Hillway, a sixth-year environmental studies student who said he gladly chose the project over the paper. “There aren’t a lot of classes that apply the concepts like that … I could actually come out to the site and partake in what we had studied.”

According to Catherine Rich, a graduate student of geography who is also active in the area of urban biogeography, the purpose of the “place-based”project is for the students to prepare a biological assessment of the area and then ultimately a Habitat Conservation Plan.

Currently, the students are in the data collection stages, and each student is assigned a particular aspect of the area to monitor. Josh Burnam, a fourth-year environmental health science student, surveys the presence of birds whenever the group makes a trip to the site located on campus.

So far, Burnam has seen and recorded the presence of hummingbirds, mockingbirds, finch and blue jays. Even an occasional hawk and owl visit the small patch because they are able to fly in from other areas, Burnam said.

What Burnam and the class had hoped to hear during their data collection was the distinctive call of the California Quail, but no one has seen or heard the birds since the Sunset Canyon Recreation
Center. was first built.

Burnam explained that the lack of natural space has driven the California Quail, and other animals such as coyote and deer, away from the UCLA campus.

The group’s ultimate goal is to develop a restoration plan for the site.

They assess the current wildlife and, based on historical documents, such as the aerial photos of the campus’ changing landscape, decide how close the area is to its natural state, said Travis Longcore, a graduate geography student who is aiding Mattoni’s class with the project.

The class determines the presence of some animals by setting cages to trap them at night. Longcore explained that all animals are released the following morning, and are caught “just to see what’s out here.”

So far, the extent of the group’s data on animals doesn’t reach much beyond woodrats and birds, due to the small size of the patch, Longcore said.

But Mattoni stressed that much of the study deals with invertebrates, and estimated that there could be more than 1,000 different species of insects in the area.

Eric Duvernay, a fourth-year geography/environmental studies student conducts the surveying of butterflies.

“We haven’t found much. I’ve seen monarchs, west coast ladies – a lot depends on the food plants here,” Duvernay said.

Duvernay’s data depends on the results of fellow student and plant specialist Christine Farris. Duvernay will be able to decide which butterfly species he should be seeing when the plant specialist is done assessing which plants occupy the area.

Each student’s role in collecting data is an integral part of the whole project, students said.

Farris, a fourth-year geography/ environment science student, stood on the hillside gripping Ziploc bags, each containing a sample of plant life collected in the area. Some of the plants she has already identified are tobacco trees and monkey flowers, but this time she came across some unknowns, later identified by Mattoni as Myoporen.

“We have a plant press. If we are unsure of species, we take it to the herbarium to identify,” Farris said, explaining that the data will then be used to do a percentage cover of vegetation.

Aly Varvel, a second-year geography/environmental science studies student and project coordinator, explained that the four acres have been divided into transects of 25 meters in length, to aid in data organization.

Teaching projects actually came about casually, Mattoni recalled.

“It started out as a class project on how to prepare a document,” Mattoni said, explaining that the idea of using the site as a teaching aid was brought up over coffee with Longcore. “I’ve been here for years, I didn’t even know (the site) existed. When I first saw it, I couldn’t get over it.”

Aside from the hillside’s refreshing change of scenery, students said the teaching site allows for hands-on training at no cost to the university, unlike other courses which require an off-campus trip.

“We think the use is obvious to people who study ecological processes,” Rich said.

The professor of the course also acknowledged how invaluable the coastal sage patch is to the students.

“They’re having the whole breadth of experience,” Mattoni said.

Although he has accompanied the group only twice to the site since they began the project, he speaks to each student individually and places them in contact with experts in their area.

“Already they are better prepared than most professionals in their field,” Mattoni said. He explained that the students’ final product, a restoration plan for the area based on their inventories and historical comparisons, could even result in future use by the university.

“No one has really created this sort of data before. If the university ever proceeded to do a restoration, we would have a pretty good bare bones start,” he said.

Mattoni won’t be teaching the bioresource management during spring quarter, but said he is currently arranging to use the coastal sage patch for a 199 class. He also said plans are in the works to create a course centered on the study of the area, to be taught sometime during the next academic year.