Courtney Dunn has always been interested in animals and their behaviors. She grew up on a farm and saw her daily responsibilities as opportunities to observe and take note of how the animals were acting.
"Feeding my family’s herd of cows wasn’t just a chore to me," she said. "It was an opportunity to observe and wonder: why did a particular heifer eat hay instead of grass? Why did that hen just peck the other one? Their behavior was my true interest, and I began to collect observations on animals both on the farm and in the woods surrounding it."
Dunn followed her interest in animals as she came to Conway to study biology at the University of Central Arkansas, graduating with her bachelor’s degree in 2012 as the first person in her family to do so.
Now, Dunn is pursuing a masters degree in biology studying tiger vocal characteristics. Her studies have given her the opportunity to travel to India to present her ongoing research efforts.
"I hope to use this opportunity to network with rangers and wildlife management leaders in the area," she said. "In presenting my research, I also hope to show others in my field the significance and feasibility of my conservation initiative."
Dunn’s research focuses on determining if tigers have a vocal "fingerprint" and — if they do — how it would allow for vocal monitoring.
"Every human has a unique voice which sets them apart as an individual," she said. "We also can tell, even if blindfolded, if the person who is talking to us is a woman or man based on how high or deep their voice is. I am hoping to determine if you can extend this way of thinking to tigers."
Dunn said her thesis currently focuses on tigers in zoological facilities in order to see if this is a way to identify tigers. She has recorded tigers at the National Tiger Sanctuary in Missouri, Big Cat Rescue in Florida and Pride Rock Wildlife Refuge in Texas.
In August 2011, Dunn was an intern at the National Tiger Sanctuary in Branson. On her first day, the facility received a tiger named Tina, who Dunn said was one of the most vocal cats the sanctuary had ever received and the most vocal animal Dunn had worked with.
Along with observing Tina’s vocalizations — which earned her the nickname "the singing tiger of Branson" — Dunn was learning about the status of tigers in the wild. She said current projections place the tigers’ extinction date in 2022.
"We had a running joke during lunch breaks where we talked about how ‘whale songs helped save whales, why not tiger songs?’ which related back to Tina and her visitor inspired nickname," she said. "For some reason, this friendly question stuck with me and made me wonder ‘could a tiger’s roar help save its species?’"
She started her first research project as an undergraduate through the National Tiger Sanctuary to address that question. Since graduating with her undergraduate degree and continuing her studies and research at UCA, she received an invitation to attend the Kanha-Pench Landscape Symposium in Central India. She is the only Arkansas student and will be working alongside researchers from Columbia, Yale, Wildlife Institute of India, Global Tiger Initiative, the Smithsonian Institution and World Wildlife Fund.
Dunn said this is the first major conservation conference where she will be able to present her ongoing research, and she hopes "to use this opportunity to network with rangers and wildlife management leaders in the area. In presenting my research, I also hope to show others in my field the significance and feasibility of my conservation initiative."
After she graduates with her masters degree, Dunn has been looking at Ph. D opportunities and then "continue to stand at the frontlines of the battle to save tigers and other big cat species by securing a job either at a zoological institution in a leadership capacity or at a non-profit organization dedicated to conservation research."
(Staff writer Angela Spencer can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 505-1212. To comment on this and other stories in the Log Cabin, log on to www.thecabin.net. Send us your news at www.thecabin.net/submit)