City Jungle_ Defending and Learning Mountain Lions and Southern California’s Various Ecology

The gadget Aaron Nanas constructed was broadcasting the cry of a distressed child rabbit, which sounds so much like a cranky human child.

As a pc engineering scholar at CSUN, Nanas had initially designed and constructed this gadget to scare away mountain lions, the charismatic predators that may be devastating to livestock. However on this late August night, his invention was perched on a publish inside a fringe, in a wooded space of the Santa Ana Mountains foothills, on a trial run to do the exact opposite: May it entice the large cats?

Video footage of a area check quickly arrived in Nanas’ CSUN inbox, with indeniable proof: Within the footage, a big feline head pokes into the left facet of the body. Instantly, a second mountain lion joins her. Quickly, there’s a 3rd.

It’s a mom and her two kittens. The “kittens” are virtually the identical dimension as their mother — on the time, they have been a couple of 12 months previous, practically able to go off on their very own. The cautious mom retains a wholesome distance from the gadget, however the two kittens enter the perimeter (which appears like a boxing ring) and saunter proper as much as the youngsters’-shoebox-sized gadget as they examine the noise. One appears proper into the digicam, carrying the expression of a curious housecat.

Simply as researchers had predicted, the sound of potential prey drew the large cats. Nanas was thrilled.

“I used to be in awe seeing the mountain lions,” mentioned Nanas ’21 (Laptop Engineering). “I used to be shocked to see them sniffing the gadget.”

Nanas’ experiment, which he accomplished as his senior capstone undertaking, is only one instance of the big variety of labor performed by the college’s college students and college to higher perceive and protect Los Angeles’ distinctive city ecology.

CSUN and City Ecology

The Faculty of Engineering and Laptop Science gives myriad analysis and hands-on studying alternatives for undergraduates — on this case, to work on units that profit mountain lions, different wildlife and livestock. Within the Faculty of Well being and Human Improvement, recreation and tourism administration college students and alumni work as rangers or docents in state and nationwide parks, as pure useful resource managers, and as advertising and marketing and communications professionals who assist members of the general public safely benefit from the pure world round us, mentioned Nathan Martin, appearing division chair. Biology college students and professors within the Faculty of Science and Arithmetic have researched city carnivores akin to coyotes and bobcats, smaller animals like lizards, geckos and rabbits, and quite a few native and invasive vegetation.

“In the event you perceive their habits, you’ll be able to probably coexist with them,” mentioned Tim Karels, a professor of biology who has labored with college students to publish analysis on L.A.’s bobcats and coyotes.

This work advantages the world round us and the scholars who do the work. Nanas graduated in December 2021 and has gone on to do thrilling work in one other realm of science (extra on that later), however researchers proceed to construct on his work.

Cat Rescue

Winston Vickers, director of the California Mountain Lion Venture at UC Davis’ Wildlife Well being Middle, enlisted CSUN colleagues to work on a multi-functional gadget that would assist defend livestock, and thus defend the threatened massive cats who are sometimes killed after preying on livestock, akin to goats.

Vickers beforehand had labored with Xudong Jia, the previous civil engineering chair at Cal Poly Pomona who now serves as affiliate dean of CSUN’s Faculty of Engineering and Laptop Science, on a undertaking to determine choices for potential wildlife crossings over I-15 in Temecula. At CSUN, Jia related Vickers with assets and know-how to get the deterrent gadget undertaking off the bottom.

Mountain lions are an vital a part of California ecosystems, serving to to manage the motion of deer and different prey, to maintain habitats in steadiness. If deer keep in a single place for too lengthy, they trample and wipe out the vegetation that smaller animals use for shelter. However the massive cats are in peril of going extinct in Southern California — they’ve small populations which can be remoted from one another by freeways, which have lower the cats off from large swaths of territory the place they’d usually hunt and roam. This isolation results in inbreeding, which may scale back genetic variety within the inhabitants and result in decreased fertility and different genetic problems.

The plight of mountain lions in Southern California captured nationwide consideration this previous winter when P-22, the famed cat who crossed the 405 and 101 freeways to reside alone in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park, was euthanized as a result of accidents he sustained when he was probably hit by a automotive a number of blocks from the park. His encounters with people and pets had elevated in his last days, an indication of misery that led to a short “manhunt” earlier than his seize in a Los Feliz yard. The town continues to mourn the lack of its adopted massive cat, together with a celebration of his life in February 2023 that stuffed the Greek Theatre to capability.

P-22’s story helped encourage assist for development of the Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing, a bridge connecting the Simi Hills and Santa Monica Mountains over the 101 Freeway at Liberty Canyon in Agoura Hills. Crews broke floor in 2022, and wildlife specialists count on the crossing to assist mountain lions and lots of different animals hemmed in by the freeway.

Automobile accidents are a major reason behind demise for mountain lions within the state, analysis exhibits, however not the commonest trigger, at the very least not among the many ones tracked by GPS collar, Vickers mentioned. When a mountain lion kills a pet or a member of a farmer’s flock, the aggrieved human can get what is named a depredation allow from the state, to kill the accountable cat. (Mountain lion assaults on people are extraordinarily uncommon.)

Vickers requested Nanas to create one thing reasonably priced that small farmers — who personal, say, a few sheep, some goats or a number of chickens, however no barn to shelter them at evening — might use to guard their animals. By holding livestock protected from mountain lions, Nanas’ gadget would make mountain lions safer from people.

Nanas, who transferred to CSUN from Glendale Neighborhood Faculty in 2019, selected to work on the undertaking with electrical and pc engineering affiliate professor Shahnam Mirzaei as his advisor in February 2021. Nanas was drawn to the concept of being the primary scholar to work on a brand new undertaking, to create one thing brand-new, he mentioned.

The undertaking demonstrates that college students working with professors within the Faculty of Engineering and Laptop Science can develop a product from conception to functioning product, Mirzaei mentioned. And this one, he mentioned, might have real-world advantages.

“It’s undoubtedly vital,” Mirzaei mentioned. “One thing you do for the surroundings, one thing that’s actual.”

Trial and Error

The gadget Nanas designed was initially supposed to be a deterrent — when its movement sensor was triggered, it might make noise, flash lights and make mechanical actions to scare away mountain lions from susceptible livestock. Vickers mentioned there are not any units presently available on the market which have each function he envisioned.

Nanas got down to discover elements that he might mix and program into an reasonably priced gadget. By trial and error, he settled on a $20 microcomputer that would work with all of the elements he wanted — it might play a speaker, interface with a small contact display screen and management a motor. (The motor was going to energy a separate movement function to distract the animals, however Nanas didn’t have time to make that function work.)

Later, the undertaking’s targets modified: As a substitute of deterring mountain lions, Vickers determined he’d just like the gadget to draw them. By drawing the animals close to, UC Davis researchers might gather hair for DNA isolation because the animals entered the perimeter. Cameras positioned across the gadget enabled the researchers to gather photographs and movies to help in figuring out particular person cats for a partnership with U.S. Geological Survey researchers.

So, Nanas pivoted. This largely required switching the audio recordsdata to completely different sounds. As a substitute of utilizing loud noises or human voices to scare the lions away, Nanas used sounds of susceptible prey.

“Aaron did job constructing his prototype out of off-the-shelf {hardware} that wasn’t too costly,” Vickers mentioned. “That’s one thing the electronics college students are higher at sniffing out: Easy methods to do one thing inexpensively, as a result of they’re generally constructing different issues on their very own.”

Testing and Innovation

Nanas despatched 4 prototypes to Vickers’ group in late August 2021. The units have been examined largely within the mountains and foothills surrounding Orange County. The movies with the mountain lion household have been captured on Audubon Starr Ranch Sanctuary, in Trabuco Canyon, Vickers mentioned.

The group positioned the units close to a website baited with roadkill deer. They surrounded each with a fringe of posts and ropes coated in tape and a sticky substance that helped seize fur samples for DNA testing. Each kittens within the movies rubbed towards the tape once they entered the ring to analyze the noise.

After the sector assessments, Nanas tweaked the units — changing some elements, updating the software program, modifying the speaker so the sound could be smoother. With the addition of a handbook swap, the gadget can now function a deterrent or attraction.

Checks of the deterrent options — particularly loud appears like human yelling — have additionally proven that the gadget works, and most mountain lions would keep away from a website utterly after encountering the units a few instances, Vickers mentioned. Predator-deterrent units may very well be helpful in defending livestock worldwide, Vickers mentioned. Zoos and wildlife sanctuaries even have expressed curiosity within the know-how.

What’s Subsequent

In latest months, a nationwide award-winning highschool scholar has been constructing on Nanas’ work, attempting to develop a system for a number of units to speak with one another to kind a community of livestock-protection units. It’s additionally attainable that different CSUN college students might proceed work on the undertaking or create different, comparable units.

As for Nanas, he’s been busy since commencement, wanting above and past California — means past. Even earlier than his commencement, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory employed him as a flight software program engineer. He contributes to the design and verification of simulation fashions that check the performance of flight electronics elements, for use within the lander that can assist retrieve and convey again samples from the Martian floor. He additionally develops the software program essential to validate the simulation fashions. The lander is scheduled to launch in 2028, and the samples might return to Earth in roughly 2033.

Nanas gained a ton of expertise in his CSUN lessons and a six-month internship at Keysight Applied sciences in Calabasas that made him marketable, and his work on the deterrent gadget particularly gave him extra confidence to put in writing software program, he mentioned.

“We simply began with an thought, and we ended up with one thing tangible,” Nanas mentioned. “And it really works.”

Author: ZeroToHero