Get Out There and SCIENCE! How to See Your Favorite Animal in its Natural Habitat

[Elizabeth Medford ‘16 is currently studying abroad in Australia. This op-ed piece about research she and her class abroad conducted on an endemic kangaroo is meant to increase awareness about ecology.]
By Elizabeth Medford '16
Guest Writer

 Musky rat-kangaroo, courtesy of

 Musky rat-kangaroo, courtesy of

Observing animals in the wild is an opportunity many miss when venturing into forests, lakes or even local campuses; however, the spotting of these animals adds to the experience of the natural world. Whether you’re looking for an uncommon animal in your area or for an animal that is abundant, some fundamental knowledge about the species can make the difference between a successful or failed observation. These ideas range from simple concepts, such as time of day or what the animal eats, to broader concepts such as forest fragmentation. This guide will attempt to increase your odds of spotting the animal that you desire, using the musky rat-kangaroo as an example.

As three American students studying abroad in northeastern Australia, we have been honing our observational skills through daily rainforest surveys. We set out in rainforest patches on Queensland’s Atherton Tablelands to spot the musky rat-kangaroo, a species only found in Australia’s Wet Tropics. Our research program has conducted two surveys on the musky rat-kangaroo with students from past semesters. We continued this study, compared our results with our peers and found a few common factors that will increase the chances of successful spotting.

One of these factors is the time of year and day that animals were spotted. While most people try to plan their observations around their schedule, a better method would be to plan your day around the best time to observe your target animal. In the case of the musky rat-kangaroo, the best time to observe them, as we experienced, is during the morning. During this time, sightings at every location were higher than during the afternoon. Trying to head out to observe at the right time of day can have a big impact on the success of spotting, but even the time of year can impact the animal sightings.

In the case of the musky rat-kangaroo, seasonal changes can bring about a different number of sightings. In our study, sightings were increased as high as 50% depending on which season observations take place. Musky rat-kangaroos can also be observed in the wet season, but the foraging behaviors of animals change as the seasons do. Studying what your animal eats and when the source is readily available is a key factor in having success in sightings. During times when food might be scarce, the animals might have to travel further or search more for food as opposed to when food is plentiful. Fruit availability could have been one of the leading reasons why musky rat-kangaroos were spotted most in the dry season. Fruit production is low in the dry season, which could force the musky rat-kangaroos to travel further distances to find food. Looking for elements of your species’ diet can lead to seeing plenty of your target animals.