The Tragedy of the Wildlife Roadkill

RoadkillDeerNegative side effects of our present day way of life are wildlife roadkills.  With our better and better vehicles which go faster and faster, wildlife often becomes the victim(s).  One report states that 253,000 animal vehicle collisions occur annually.*  On almost any public roadway, even gravel roads, year around, one often views the mangled remains of a once thriving animal.  Vehicles show no mercy, although it is rarely the purposeful intent of the motorist to hit an animal.  The result is usually particularly gruesome and one-sided.  Several tons of a moving vehicle almost always win in a direct or indirect bodily encounter at any speed.  Sometimes one sees deceased larger animals alongside the roadway with no readily apparent fatal damage, though the vehicle that caused it undoubtedly is not so fortunate.  However, much more commonly, the squashed body parts of an unfortunate smaller animal lie in the middle of the road.  These are run over time and again until there is very little remaining other than some hair/feathers and a bloody stain on the blacktop.

Inadverdant sudden and unforeseen collisions especially with birds and mammals are particularly detrimental to vehicles, also.  Repair bills for such run unto the hundreds of millions annually.  Human life has been lost on occasion—a tragic, no-win situation for either party.

Although collisions can and do occur throughout the year, they are more common during seasonal migrations, when newborns leaving protective maternal care on their own, or during hunting seasons which tend to disrupt normal game movements.  Rural areas seem to be more at risk for wildlife game collisions.  Many states place game warning signs along particularly vulnerable migrations routes and movements.  However, with numbers of White Tail and Mule deer reaching new population highs in some places, collisions even in urban areas are much more common.  I have personally seen Mule deer inadvisedly crossing busy streets in densely populated areas.

The only time I have personally had a “large” encounter was in South Carolina.  I was on my way to work early one morning.  I saw nothing, only heard and felt a “thud” on the passenger side of my vehicle.  Stopping, I found the door had some minor denting and the rear view mirror was markedly damaged.  I looked for, but never found, the white-tailed deer that ran into the side of the car, but I assume that it was not injured—probably just scarred, scared and bruised.  Living in the West and frequently traveling rural roads, I have contributed my share, but never on purpose, of deadly encounters with ground squirrels, porcupines, skunks, raccoons, and badgers.  In no case did any of the latter win the confrontation!

Unfortunately, to my knowledge, science has not yet come up with devices to either warn drivers or animals of impending danger.  Some time ago, small “whistle-like” devices mounted on the side of a vehicle were peddled as effective in preventing crashes with deer, but these seem to be mostly ineffective.  If there is an “up” side to roadkills, it is this.  As a biologist, I keep my eyes peeled for freshly killed animals along the roadway, especially in the early mornings.  Biologists are keen to find and report distributional ranges of species of animals, especially small mammals.  They inventory local fauna mostly by trapping, or deadfalls.  Sometimes, these are not effective in securing a good sampling and so do not accurately reflect local wildlife population presence.  At times, rare or exotic animals succumbing to vehicle encounters are a helpful indicator of their presence in places not otherwise documented.

More so in years past than now, biologists first trapped, then prepared “study skins” of local fauna.  A study skin is prepared by removing the skin and placing a cotton body with cottoned wire inserted into the limbs and then pinned down to dry.  For larger animals, skins only are stretched and preserved.  Skulls and bacula (penial bones) are also cleaned and preserved, as sometimes are body tissues.  This technique is not taxidermy but is very helpful for future study of taxonomic/systematic characters such as fur coloration, bone structure and measurement, dental details, etc.  Special care has to be taken to prevent insect (such as dermestid beetles) damage to the skins.  Skin collections in museums, usually universities, house tens of thousand of such specimens and are a treasure house for scientific study

I personally have collected and processed fresh roadkills.  I remember sending a red fox skin, salted down, back to the Stovall Museum when out on a prolonged collecting trip.  Arriving before the package did, upon opening it, the scent was most rancid and did not help my popularity with the secretaries!  I once picked up a fresh badger specimen and temporarily kept it in my parents home freezer.  Unfortunately, my mother had a most unpleasant surprise one day and I continued to hear about that for years; in fact, it almost became a family legend!

A discussion of roadkills would not be complete without mentioning the culinary side.*  A number of states have legalized the consumption of roadkills, including Wyoming, Montana and Utah.  For further information, the internet has a wealth of roadkill discussions.

Robinson, D.  2013.  Want a tasty treat?  Try a roadkill recipe.  Deseret News, March 5, 2013.