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York College Biology major studies impact of human presence on wildlife

Erika Sheppelmann with bio poster

In one photo, a raccoon looks curiously into the camera lens, so close it nearly fills the frame. In another, a hawk pounces on its prey. Then, there’s about a thousand images of the same deer who decided to take a nap in front of the camera, triggering the series.

Erika Scheppelmann never knows what she’ll find when she downloads the memory cards from her trail cameras to her laptop. For almost a year, she’s had 12 motion-censor cameras spread throughout Richard M. Nixon County Park, in Springfield Township, York, Pennsylvania, documenting the wildlife there.

She wanted to know if the presence of humans in the park impacts animals’ habitat use. So, for her senior research project at York College of Pennsylvania, she decided to find out.

Connected to nature

Erika grew up in a hunting family. She started tagging along with her dad and brother to watch and learn when she was just six or seven years old. By the time she was a teenager, she was hunting with them.

Sitting silently in a tree stand for hours, she’s experienced nature in a way many of her peers haven’t. She’s seen foxes playing together and heard birds calling one another. She appreciates the food web and her role in it. “I feel more connected,” she says.

Erika’s always loved being outside—hunting, fishing, birdwatching, anything to be out in nature. So, it just made sense for her to pursue a degree in Biology, with the hopes of working in wildlife conservation. She narrowed down her college search to two schools, but was torn about which to attend. So, she decided to email both their biology departments.

The head of Biology Sciences at York College emailed back, asking about her interests and answering the big questions. Then she was connected to a current student who had similar interests to get an inside look at life at York College. The other school sent back a standard form email. “It was in that moment that I knew that York College cares about me,” she says.

A big opportunity

Erika’s research isn’t glamorous. She’s had to trek to her cameras to change batteries and memory cards in the freezing cold and sweltering heat—all while trying to protect herself from ticks and leave as little trace as possible. But it’s been exciting to do research in her chosen field, to get that real-world experience. “When I got my first image of a coyote I was through the roof and immediately emailed my mentor,” she says.

Her mentor, Dr. Bridgette E. Hagerty, helped take Erika’s research beyond York. As a member of the Wildlife Society, Dr. Hagerty was able to gift a membership to Erika, who then was accepted to present her research at the joint Wildlife Society-American Fisheries Society meeting in Reno, Nevada.

Though her research wasn’t yet complete, Erika presented her preliminary findings at the conference, and she received a grant through the York College Center of Academic Innovation to finance her travel. “It was extremely intimidating being there with so many professionals, undergraduates, and graduate students,” she says. “It was a lot, but it was an amazing experience, and I’m just really happy I had the chance to do it.”

Her work was well received. The biggest compliment she got came from someone who assumed she was a graduate student because of the quality of her work. “When they realized I was an undergrad, they were blown away,” she says.

A unique experience

Erika is still finalizing her results. Preliminary work suggested that animal habitat use did not change very much with the presence of people. But as her research progressed, there was a drop in some mesopredators—mid-ranking predators like the red fox—in areas that became open to the public.

Whatever her results show, it’s been an incredible experience. “Not every school offers this kind of research for their students,” she says.

She’s grateful to the people at Nixon Park, the York College Biology Department, and the Center for Academic Innovation. “Being able to do my research in the park, funding for my research, a lot of work has gone into it,” she says, “and I’m super grateful for their support.”