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Zachary H. Olson



Purdue University



Frostburg State University



South Dakota State University


Post-Doctoral Training

Department of Forestry & Natural Resources

Purdue University

West Lafayette



animal behavior

Behavioral ecology

Community Ecology



Molecular Ecology and Conservation Genetics

Wildlife Conservation


Current Research

Moose brain worm detection using eDNA - Moose brain worm (P. tenuis) is a parasite that has been indicted (though not definitively) in the decline of moose populations across much of the northern United States.  The race is on to develop methods of efficiently detecting moose brain worm infections without the need to conduct difficult (logistically and technically) necropsies. My students and I are working to leverage the same methods used in environmental DNA studies--where researchers have detected animal presence from the DNA left behind in the environment, so detecting invasive carp from samples of stream water or bullfrogs from samples of pond water are examples--to detect P. tenuis infections from moose carcasses.

Constructed burrows and the endangered New England cottontail rabbit - The New England cottontail rabbit is Maine's only native rabbit species, and is experiencing a rapid decline in numbers and range.  My students and I are working with state and federal scientists to determine if cottontails will make use of constructed burrows, and if using constructed burrows will improve their survival during winter.  Preliminary results look promising, but the project is ongoing.

Using non-invasive genetics to diagnose Northern bog lemming occurrence - Northern bog lemmings are a state threatened species in Maine.  We know very little about their behavior, ecology, or even their distribution.  My students and I are working in the field and in the lab to develop a molecular tool that will allow us to distinguish the threatened Northern bog lemming from its congener, the putatively more-common Southern bog lemming.  This project is the first step in improving our understanding of 1) where Northern bog lemmings are, 2) what they are doing, and 3) how we might better conserve them.  

Identifying individual nutria using non-invasive DNA - Nutria are large, non-native rodents that cause damage to wetlands across much of the eastern and southern United States.  Eradication efforts are time intensive and costly, and could be aided by information about the habits and abundance of targeted populations. In collaboration with my colleague in the Biology Department at UNE, Dr. Steve Travis , our students are developing non-invasive genetic methods to identify individual nutria.

Investigating grey seal food habits - Grey seals are in the process of an impressive comeback in numbers, and concerns are being raised that grey seals are more and more competing with commercial fisheries operations for desirable groundfishes like cod.  At the same time as grey seal numbers have rebounded in the area, another potential competitor for groundfishes, the spiny dogfish, has also increased its range northward and has become more common in the Gulf of Maine ecosystem.  My colleague in the Department of Marine Sciences, Dr. Kathryn Ono, and I along with our students are developing a molecular tool and conducting field work to determine if grey seals have added spiny dogfish to their diets. Such a diet shift could serve to buffer fish stocks from the two predators, and detecting that shift will aide managers in determining the scope of any impact that grey seals and spiny dogfish might be having on groundfish populations.  

Scavenging and the ecology of fear - The world outside can be a scary place - even more so when you are at the bottom of the food web.  We know that carrion and the scavengers that feed on it can have profound local impacts and surprisingly broad-ranging effects on ecosystems in terms of feeding relationships and nutrient cycles. My students and I are investigating how carrion and the scavengers it attracts might be changing the landscape of fear by influencing foraging decisions of wild mice.     

Research Interests

My scholarship in animal behavior can be divided into two broad categories. My students and I conduct applied research that seeks to inform efforts to conserve wildlife and we conduct basic research investigating facets of foraging behavior including scavenging ecology.

Selected Publications

Steinbeiser, C. M., C. A. Wawrzynowski, X. Ramos, and Z. H. Olson. 2018. Scavenging and the ecology of fear: Do animal carcasses create islands of risk on the landscape? Canadian Journal of Zoology 96:229-236. 

Beatty, W. S., J. C. Beasley, Z. H. Olson, and O. E. Rhodes, Jr. 2016. Influence of habitat attributes on density of Virginia opossums in agricultural ecosystems. Canadian Journal of Zoology 94:411-419.

Kenison, E. K., Z. H. Olson, and R. N. Williams. 2016. A novel transport system for hellbender salamanders (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis). Herpetological Conservation and Biology 11:355-361.

DeVault, T. L., J. C. Beasley, Z. H. Olson, M. Moleón, J. A. Sánchez-Zapata, J. A. Donázar, and A. Margalida. 2016. Ecosystem services provided by avian scavengers. Pages 235-270 in Sekercioglu, C., Wenny, D. G., and Whelan, C. J., eds. Ecosystem Services Provided by Birds. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois.

Dharmarajan, G., J. C. Beasley, W. S. Beatty, Z. H. Olson, J. A. Fike, and O. E. Rhodes, Jr. 2016. Genetic co-structuring in host-parasite systems: empirical data from raccoons and raccoon ticks. Ecosphere in press

Olson, Z. H., J. C. Beasley, and O. E. Rhodes, Jr. 2016. Carcass type affects local scavenger guilds more than habitat connectivity. PLoS ONE 11(2):e0147798. [link to full text]

Olson, Z. H., B. J. MacGowan, M. T. Hamilton, A. F. Currylowe, and R. N. Williams. 2015. Survival of timber rattlesnakes: incorporating individual and ecological effects. Herpetologica 71:274-279.

Beasley, J. C., Z. H. Olson, and T. L. DeVault. Ecological role of vertebrate scavengers. 2015. Pages 107-128 in Carrion Ecology, Evolution, and their Application. Benbow, M. E., J. Tomberlin, and A. Tarone, Eds. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida, USA.

Hoverman, J. T., Z. H. Olson, S. LaGrange, J. Grant, and R. N. Williams. 2015. A guide to larval amphibian identification in the field and laboratory. Purdue University Coop. Ext. Service, W. Lafayette, IN. FNR-496.

Olson, Z. H., D. G. Whittaker, and O. E. Rhodes, Jr. 2013. Translocation history and genetic diversity in bighorn sheep. Journal of Wildlife Management 77:1553-1563.

Olson, Z. H., N. G. Burgmeier, P. A. Zollner, and R. N. Williams. 2013. Survival estimates for adult eastern hellbenders and their utility for conservation. Journal of Herpetology 47:71-74.

Beasley, J. C., Z. H. Olson, W. S. Beatty, G. Dharmarajan, and O. E. Rhodes, Jr. 2013. Effects of culling on mesopredator populations dynamics. PLoS ONE 8:e58982.

Olson, Z. H., J. T. Briggler, and R. N. Williams. 2012. An eDNA approach to detect eastern hellbenders (Cryptobranchus a.  alleganiensis) using samples of water. Wildlife Research 39:629-636.

Beasley, J. C., Z. H. Olson, and T. L. DeVault. 2012. Carrion cycling in food webs: comparisons among terrestrial and marine ecosystems. Oikos 121:1021-1026.

Olson, Z. H., D. G. Whittaker, and O. E Rhodes, Jr. 2012. Evaluation of experimental genetic management in reintroduced bighorn sheep. Ecology and Evolution 2:429-443.

Olson, Z. H., J. C. Beasley, T. L. DeVault, and O. E. Rhodes, Jr. 2012. Scavenging community response to the removal of a dominant scavenger. Oikos 121:77-84.

Beasley, J. C., Z. H. Olson, G. Dharmarajan, T. S. Eagan, II, and O. E. Rhodes, Jr. 2011. Spatio-temporal variation in the demographic attributes of a generalist mesopredator. Landscape Ecology 26:937-950.

Eagan, T. S., II, J. C. Beasley, Z. H. Olson, and O. E. Rhodes, Jr. 2011. Response of small-mammal populations to the removal of a generalist mesopredator in a fragmented, agricultural landscape. Canadian Journal of Zoology 89:724-731.

DeVault, T. L., Z. H. Olson, J. C. Beasley, and O. E. Rhodes, Jr. 2011. Mesopredators dominate competition for carrion in an agricultural landscape. Basic and Applied Ecology 12:268-274.

Page, L. K., J. C. Beasley, Z. H. Olson, T. J. Smyser, M. Downey, K. F. Kellner, S. E. McCord, T. S. Eagan, II, and O. E. Rhodes, Jr. 2011. Reducing Baylisascaris procyonis roundworm larvae in raccoon latrines. Emerging Infectious Diseases 17:90-93.

Funded Grants

Olson, Z. H. and C. Mosby. 2018. Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife - Grant in Aid of Wildlife Restoration. "Development of eDNA methods to efficiently detect Northern bog lemming populations at a landscape scale."

Olson. Z. H. 2017-2018. United States Fish and Wildlife Service. "Seabird diet assessment." 

Olson, Z. H., and C. Mosby. 2016-2017. Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife - Grant in Aid of Wildlife Restoration. "Using a novel non-invasive molecular method to detect Northern bog lemmings: a preliminary investigation."

Olson, Z. H. 2015-2016. Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife - Grant in Aid of Wildlife Restoration. "Using environmental DNA (eDNA) methods to detect P. tenuis infections in moose mortalities."

Olson, Z. H. 2014-2016. Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife - State Wildlife Improvement Grant, "Investigating constructed burrow use in New England cottontail rabbits."

Olson, Z. H., and J. E. DePue. 2013-2015. Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund, "A non-invasive method for detecting the state threatened Northern bog lemming (Synaptomys borealis)."

Travis, S. E., and Z. H. Olson. 2013-2015. National Wetlands Research Center, United States Geological Survey, "Non-invasive genotyping of nutria for use in population estimation - a pilot study."

Zach Olson

Zachary H. Olson



Assistant Professor of Animal Behavior

Biddeford Campus

Decary Hall

(207) 602-2766

On Campus