Those white circles alongside the bike trail are not the work of zealots trying to shame dog owners for not picking up after their pets, as some have surmised.
The circles have been spray-painted by University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate student Kyle Dougherty, who is marking and studying fox scat as part of his master’s degree research project.
And fox and dog scat are different, said Dougherty. Dog scat tends to have rounded ends and is pretty uniform. Fox scat often has hair and bone fragments and is kind of twisted up and tapered at the ends, he explained.
Dougherty is looking for fox scat to indicate the relative abundance of foxes in areas across the city.
“The more scat we find, theoretically the more foxes should be in that area,” he said.
That information can also help with understanding what factors lead more foxes to be in different areas, he said.
It is apparent, from news and social media, that there is a high level of interest in red foxes in Lincoln, said Liz VanWormer, an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Dougherty’s supervisor in the research project.
Through the research “we hope to improve our understanding of how foxes and people overlap in the city and surrounding areas,” she said.
But Dougherty’s work goes beyond how many foxes and why. He’s trying to understand diseases in red foxes, to see if they can be used as a sentinel species, giving advance warning of diseases in other animals.
The Lincoln Journal Star reports that several weeks ago, Dougherty, who is working toward a master’s degree in natural resources science, walked the seven Lincoln bike and walking trails — 30 miles in the city and almost 19 miles outside the city — marking fox scat with paint.
Two weeks later, he’s walking the trails again. The paint lets him know what scat is old and what is new, so he has numbers.
On this second walk he is also collecting new scat for testing, to get diet information, some disease information and to verify the scat is from a fox.
Dougherty got permission for his scat project from the city and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.
He has found more evidence of foxes along more rural trails — the Jamaica North and MoPac. But there is evidence of foxes in town, he said.
And this may not be the end of paint-circled scat along trails. Dougherty may repeat the process later this fall.