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Payton Phillips and ferret research in the Badlands

Doing good research in Badlands

Biology graduate student works to increase survivability of black-footed ferrets

Contact: Gary H. Piatek

​When biology graduate student Payton Phillips was young, she wasn't allowed to have a ferret.

"I always wanted a ferret as a pet and to name it Niffler after the creature in the Harry Potter books and movies, but my mother thought they were smelly and would get into stuff," she said.

Now she handles as many as she can get her hands on.

Ferret study

Phillips is a graduate research assistant to biology faculty member Bradley Swanson, who has been researching ways to increase the long-term survivability of black-footed ferrets in the wild.


A plague, other diseases and the reduction of prairie dogs — their main food source —  wiped out black-footed ferrets in North America by the 1980s, but captive ferrets have been bred and released back into their breeding grounds, mostly in the Great Plains states. Phillips is studying the ferrets' genetic diversity to help them thrive and to better manage their development.

That research had her walking the hills of the Canata Basin in the Badlands of South Dakota this past summer with a team of researchers from the nonprofit Prairie Wildlife Research, with support from the Smithsonian National Zoo, doing various analyses on the existing ferret population.

The goals

Her research has two main goals. One is to find out if the ferrets have lost much of their genetic diversity after the plague hit the basin — formerly the home to the largest free-ranging population of ferrets — which could decrease the animals' ability to adapt to different environments and survive diseases. The answer to that will help develop better population management techniques.

The other goal is to analyze through genetic testing the paternity of the wild-born kits.

Paternity has a big impact on how genes are spread among a population, said Phillips and Swanson. Because the ferrets mate underground in prairie dog burrows, researchers don't know if the females are monogamous and thus have a litter with one set of male genes, or if they have several mates and have kits with multiple sets of male genes.

Knowing the genetic diversity of the litter helps researchers determine the best way to manage the population, such as moving some males from one colony to another to increase diversity in the colonies. The greater diversity of a colony, the better the animals are able to adapt to environmental and other stresses.

From CMU to the world

Phillips is a conservationist and loves the outdoors. After her graduation from the College of William and Mary with a biology degree, she spent a year studying wildlife and conservation with a number of organizations. That experience helped her decide that she wanted to further her education and focus on research.

“Studying at CMU has really been a great training opportunity.” — Payton Phillips

As fate would have it, Swanson was advertising for a graduate research assistant to help with his research on the black-footed ferret.

Phillips' goals and background, which included studies of other carnivores, impressed Swanson, and he brought her onto his team.

"Studying at CMU has really been a great training opportunity," she said. It is just what she was looking for when she applied to the university.

She said that when she initially interviewed with Swanson, she discovered she would have a lot of opportunity to do research and present findings at international conferences. Phillips presented Michigan dragonfly research that took second place at the International Congress of Conservation Biology in Cartagena, Colombia, last July. She will present her work on the black-footed ferret in Toronto in July.

She also liked that she would be able to take interesting courses at CMU where she could turn class projects into research projects.

CMU was the best school with the best support system at the best location, she said. It also has prepared her for the future.

Her graduate student experience at CMU has taught her new genetic techniques and about disease ecology, skills that will help her in the next stage of her career: pursuing a doctorate in conservation biology beginning next fall.

"I want to have a lab that does valuable research that provides results that can be used to manage or conserve wildlife."

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