Sequencing the Mexican Spotted Owl Family Tree

Funded: $57,000

Federally listed as a threatened species for the last quarter century, the Mexican Spotted Owl is one of the most unique and charismatic creatures inhabiting the canyon country in Zion National Park. With Utah in the center of its critical habitat, Mexican Spotted Owls have found refuge in the canyons that crisscross Zion. Roosting daily on shady ledges and stealthily hunting within the canyons at night, these owls usually go unnoticed by all but the most observant visitors. This elusive behavior protects the Mexican Spotted Owl from predators, but also makes them incredibly challenging subjects to study. Through decades of zealous searching, Zion biologists have managed to locate two dozen nesting areas throughout the park, and each year the Zion wildlife team strives to increase understanding of owl behavior in order to more effectively protect the species.

Leveraging advanced technology, Zion’s biologists have partnered with a dedicated team of researchers at Northern Arizona University to develop a non-intrusive, data-rich process that will advance preservation protocols. By conducting DNA-sequencing from Mexican Spotted Owl pellets and shed feathers, the Zion team will identify the vegetation and prey animals essential to the owl food chain. They will also investigate whether other food sources (granola bars?) are present in the owl diet.

The collection of this DNA data will allow the park to construct a family tree connecting generations of owls across the greater Zion ecosystem. This gift, and the ground-breaking findings gained from it, will enhance Mexican Spotted Owl management within Zion and across the region.