Agoura teen Tanner Saul is living at the right time when it comes to pursuing his dream of working with wildlife and his recent first place in this year’s prestigious American Museum of Natural History’s Young Naturalist Awards is only half of the story.
Sure, he’s got oodles of curiosity and enthusiasm for local mountain lions, bobcats and more. Yes, he’s had plenty of professional mentors who took him under their wing showing him the inner workings of outdoor biology and research. And growing up next door to the Santa Monica Mountains gave him many opportunities to witness, as he says, “wildlife right from my window.”
But if it wasn’t for advances in technology, the internet and social media, Saul may still be only looking out the preverbal window at wildlife.
Saul’s expertise with the internet, social media, YouTube and the sophisticated motion sensor camera “traps” is a perfect example of the kinds of tools that the new crop of future biologists are using with ease – far from binoculars, extensive fieldwork and guesswork of the past.
“He’s very lucky that he’s had a focus so young in life as well as the resources available to him,” says Laurel Serieys, a Ph.D. candidate working on bobcats in Southern California who gave the eager youth volunteer opportunities in her research. “I would have loved to have someone do for me what we have given to Tanner,” she says thinking back. “I didn’t have the advantages that Tanner has today. I think that’s why we all responded to him. He’s genuine.”
Saul’s journey began four years ago, when he discovered camera trapping technology from YouTube; he screamed with delight after seeing his first image of a coyote from his Bushnell Trophy camera. “It’s such a great non-invasive tool and you can see what they do, look act, behave,” he says about the cameras that were originally made for hunters and landowners. “The older models were slower to click and you didn’t get as much as you do now.”
Saul perfected his camera images by playing with angles and locations; attending a professional tracking class gave him the tools to “read” the landscape for wildlife.
Saul’s clear and professional images on the internet caught the attention of National Park Service biologist Jeff Sikich who discovered that one of Saul’s mountain lion image was of P12, a NPS cat that’s collar was inactive.
Likewise, Johanna Turner, a San Fernando wildlife enthusiast who had been using cameras in the local mountains for six years, also discovered Saul’s videos and was equally captivated. She understood how hard it was to get good images. Saul and Turner quickly became camera colleagues with Saul accompanying Turner to position cameras around for optimal critter connections.
Turner remembers his eagerness. “When any of us suggested something he did it,” she says about her colleagues like Serieys and Sikich. “We told him about a certain book, try this cologne to attract wildlife, aim your camera this way, and then he did it. We all knew this kid was serious.”
Serieys first contacted the youth when she needed help locating a bobcat in Topanga State Park that had been treated for mange. “I was getting desperate,” she says. “Tanner came out, placed the cameras and found the right location for this bobcat.”
With Serieys guidance, Saul kept track of one single bobcat by downloading data and listening to signals. He also cleaned dead bobcat skulls, taking measurements and pulling canines for future lab work – all in a day’s work for any biologist.
After witnessing Saul’s good-natured dedication, Serieys suggested Saul enter the Young Naturalist Awards during his senior year of high school. “We worked together on his project and I made suggestions on how to incorporate data, background, etc.” she says. “But it was all his ideas. He did the work, he wrote it, it was all his.”
Saul’s entry, “Analysis of the Composition of Mammalian Species in an Urban, Fragmented Area of Southern California,” involved camera tracking data comparing large mammals in two Los Angeles areas, one a “pristine” location (the San Gabriel Mountains) and the other a fragmented island of wilderness surrounded by freeways, houses and more (the Verdugo Mountains).
Saul research, essay and images impressed the judges. “What he did was awesome and how he conducted the data was totally original,” says Christine Economos, senior administrator of the Young Naturalist program.
Saul’s first place win got him a trip to New York, a chance to meet other science-minded students and prize money which he used to purchase a laptop now being put to good use during his freshman year at the University of Montana at Missoula.
Juggling classes and life away from home, Saul is still adamant about his career with critters. “I’m not sure where I’ll end up or what animal I’ll be studying,” he says. “Heck, I might end up in Africa!”
But if Serieys has her way, Saul would return to Southern California and the two could be professional colleagues working on a project together. “I love his family and he’s going to have a bright future,” he says. “I can’t wait to see what he’ll do.”