We’re hosting a series of Field Experts, a few rock stars in their chosen STEM fields, to take us along as they study the world. We welcome Danielle Lee as our first Field Expert.

by Danielle N. Lee 

I am an animal behavior scientist. This means that I study animals to try to understand them better. I want to know what they do, why they do it, how they do it and when. I study nuisance rodents over urban gradients; in other words, mice and rats that vex people.  

I actually study different kinds of rodents internationally. Here at home in the Midwestern US I study field mice but in Tanzania, Africa, I study the Southern giant pouched rat. Field mice are any number of small, fit-in-the-palm-of-your-hand sized mice that occupy old fields, forests, farmlands and alleyways. That includes house mice, deer mice, voles, and jumping mice. Giant pouched rats (as their name suggests) are large rodents--about the size of a house cat--that are also found in old fields, forests, farmlands and alleyways. They have cheek pouches like hamsters.  

Despite their differences in size, location, and species, these two sets of rodents share some important traits. One, they do a great job of being a nuisance. They bother both farmers and city-dwellers, scurrying onto their properties and causing problems with their crops and in or near their homes. These nuisance animals seem to thrive no matter if they are in natural or human-modified environments. I want to understand why. 

I study wild animals that I catch, measure, observe and then often release back into the wild in order to better understand how they make a living across these human-modified environments. Could natural forces be influencing city rodents and country rodents in very different ways? Are city rodents better problem-solvers and more curious than their country cousins? Could we use this basic information about their behavior and population peaks to make better pest management decisions for people in both rural and urban settings? 

Danielle N. Lee, an Assistant Professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, is an Outreach Scientist who studies animal behavior and behavioral ecology. She studies the natural history and behavioral phenotypes of African giant pouched rats in Tanzania. Danielle is a TED Fellow and NatGeo Emerging Explorer. You can follow her on Twitter here.