There are ways in which Matt Gompper’s work is simultaneously disheartening and inspiring. As an associate professor in the Fisheries and Wildlife department, he pursues research that falls into an area of wildlife biology known as conservation biology. That is, he seeks to understand the theoretical and real-world causes that drive animal populations to decline or become extinct. While focusing on animal species on the brink of extinction is surely depressing, his efforts are also aimed at conservation—and that’s the part that is encouraging.
Gompper’s research subjects range across many wild species, from spotted skunks and foxes to large carnivores (like tigers). He and his team of graduate students concentrate on species in the midwest and surrounding areas, upstate New York, and the Adirondack mountains, as well as in the southern Yucatan of Mexico, the Pantanal of Brazil, and south-central India. Addressing basic questions that involve evolutionary ecology, these research projects ask questions about how organisms come to exist and how animal communities change over time.
In order to assess the status of certain species (where they’re living, what they’re doing, what they die from), Gompper’s team utilizes a number of different techniques. While they sometimes must actually go ahead and capture animals, Gompper prefers to employ non-invasive techniques to gather data, including radio telemetry collars that signal location, infrared cameras that photograph animals based on detected patterns of heat and motion, aluminum track plates that capture individual paw prints, and sometimes even DNA samples of hair and fecal matter. Right now, much of their research occurs in Missouri, where they are working to create detailed habitat maps that reveal where particular species of wildlife are likely to reside.
Another regional project involves a species called the eastern spotted skunk—not the infamously odoriferous striped skunk with which we’re only too familiar in the midwest, but a version no bigger than a squirrel. “Up until the 1940s it was a very common species throughout the midwest,” explains Gompper. Known by some old-timers as the civet cat, this creature registered high populations in pelt trade records of the past—similar to the situation with the common raccoon today. But at some point in the 1940s, the eastern spotted skunk “just disappeared” from many areas. Nobody knows for sure why this change occurred.
A number of Gompper’s projects strive to identify basic biological information about spotted skunks: where they are, what sort of populations exist, what they’re doing, what they’re dying from, and how they’re managing reproduction. “Imagine if raccoons just suddenly disappeared tomorrow,” Gompper offers by way of analogy. “This is essentially the case and yet we know nothing about these animals.”
Using a broad array of techniques to gain insight into the ecology and natural history of endangered species leads Gompper to the important area of conservation biology: how to bring species back from the brink of extinction. “I think it behooves us all to try to figure out what led to the decline,” he says of the spotted skunk. “If we can identify that reason, and identify where the animals are today and what they’re doing, we might be able to fix the problem and keep it from happening to other organisms in the future.” And the future brings with it a degree of finality. “This is really a last-ditch effort to try to keep these animals from going extinct,” remarks Gompper, “because once they’re extinct, you can’t bring them back.”
Toward this end Gompper began co-directing the Mizzou Tigers for Tigers program, affectionately referred to as MT4T. Founded in 1999, the organization is dedicated to raising awareness about the status of wild tigers – it’s sad to know that the majestic animal MU has taken as its mascot, for instance, is close to becoming extinct. In addition to raising public awareness of the plight of tigers in the wild, MT4T works to support existing projects geared toward protecting tigers (as well as the people who live near them), and to train students from the University of Missouri-Columbia how to run non-profit organizations. “It’s very clear that without active management—and financial support—tigers will disappear in our own lifetime,” Gompper warns. “If we want tigers out there on the landscape, if we want to know that they’re out there somewhere, then we have to do something about it.” Fortunately, the Mizzou community has realized that “the animal that lends not just its name, but also its image, its personality, and its drive now faces an uncertain future—one that without active efforts by people like us, will result in the demise of tigers in the wild. Somehow I suspect that a world in which tigers exist solely in cages is not a world we wish to leave to our children.”