Lacy Dolan has traversed the country studying mammals. Her latest stop is Mississippi State University, where she studies the state’s black bears.
Growing up, the Dwight, Illinois, native said cats were the first animals to pique her curiosity.
“My parents both grew up on farms, so we had outdoor cats, which I loved. I remember learning about different animals and being fascinated by how they adapted to various environments,” she said.
She earned her bachelor’s in biology from Blackburn College in her home state before moving to San Jose, California, where she worked in a veterinary research lab and volunteered for a wild cat conservation group in her spare time.
“We focused on bobcats and mountain lions. I helped with public outreach events and volunteered in the field with biologists,” she said.
Dolan then sought a master’s for more hands-on opportunities to work with mammals, studying gray foxes at Southeast Missouri State University.
“Gray foxes are the only canids, members of the same family as dogs, which climb trees,” she said. “I studied their morphology to learn what allows them to do that.”
Dolan is now pursuing a doctoral degree in the College of Forest Resources’ Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Aquaculture, studying genetic and diet diversity in American black bears in Mississippi.
“Mississippi is interesting because while we have a population of re-colonizing bears, many come from neighboring states where recovery is further along,” she said.
Her research is part of a large regional effort supported by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the state wildlife agencies in Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas. The project’s goal is to better understand and predict black bear population growth and movement in the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley. Dolan’s contribution included setting up hair snares in pockets of Mississippi with known bear occurrences.
“We set up a corral by wrapping barbed wire around several trees and hanging small biodegradable bags containing a pastry or donut and saturate a cotton pad with a raspberry scent lure high inside the corral. The barbs snag a small tuft of hair as bears pass through the wires to investigate the scents,” she said.
Dolan said team members—Dana Morin, Mississippi State assistant professor; Joe Clark, U.S. Geological Survey supervisory research ecologist; and Don White Jr., University of Arkansas Monticello professor—are curious about genetic diversity in Mississippi’s populations because it provides information about what other states the bears are coming from, and at what rate they are moving in.
“We’re mapping genetics of individuals and the landscape features to assess how the individuals move across the landscape. We hope to identify which states our bears are coming from, which will help us determine where dispersal corridors might be,” she said. The team will use this information to predict how quickly the bear population will grow in Mississippi.
Dolan uses hair follicles for genetics while the rest of the hair is analyzed for diets.
“We determine the hair’s carbon and nitrogen content that we then match to possible diet items,” said Dolan, who explained different foods have different carbon and nitrogen signatures.
She also is evaluating whether different diets can change the shape of a bear’s jaw over time, by analyzing contemporary Mississippi bear skulls and those from before 1930, around the time Mississippi bears were virtually wiped out.
Dolan hopes her work will impact black bear conservation in Mississippi.
“It’s cool to be part of a regional collaboration working on a re-colonizing bear population. I’ve worked alongside some big names in black bear research, and I’m happy that my research will shed light on Mississippi’s black bears,” she said.