Maximilian Allen, an assistant research scientist-wildlife ecology at the Illinois Natural History Survey, is the recipient of the Prairie Research Institute’s 2020 Early Career Investigator Award.
Allen’s research focuses on the ecology and behavior of carnivores, with current projects addressing population estimation and dynamics of carnivores; scent marking behavior in solitary felids; interspecific interactions among carnivores; and the effects large carnivores have on their ecosystems.
In nominating Allen, INHS director Eric Schauber wrote that his “research has opened up new opportunities to study the behavior, population dynamics, and community ecology of carnivores.” He praised Allen for tackling his research questions with diverse techniques and approaches, including radiotelemetry, GPS biologging, analysis of harvest data, camera trapping, and citizen science initiatives.
“Max exemplifies the kind of integrated approach that will be crucial in filling knowledge gaps and meeting the challenges that face wild animal populations (and the people who value them) in the coming decades,” Schauber wrote.
In addition to his research, Allen is the curator of the INHS mammal collection. He has nearly doubled the size of the collection in the past 18 months and is streamlining the collection database, which will make INHS mammal data more accessible to scholars around the world.
Allen joined INHS almost two years ago after completing post-doctoral positions at the University of Wisconsin and the University of California-Santa Cruz. He earned his Ph.D. in conservation biology from Victoria University of Wellington in 2014. He has published more than 50 peer-reviewed articles in journals including Ecology, Biological Conservation, and The American Naturalist.
Allen recently answered a few questions about his work.
What do you enjoy most about your job at INHS?
I really enjoy research, learning about animals and often discovering new aspects of their behavior. INHS allows me the freedom to follow my curiosity to find answers to questions that often occur to me while in the field. I also enjoy mentoring students, and INHS provides me great opportunities for that. The job is a very good fit for me.
Several of your research studies have employed camera traps, which have collected data on tigers and leopards in Sumatra, foxes and coyotes in urban areas, and various carnivores on Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands. What makes camera trapping a particularly useful technique for your research?
One of the key benefits of camera traps is that they allow people to record animals without impacting them or their behavior. They are similar to tracking collars in some ways but provide a different way of understanding the animal. Most camera trapping involves documenting the abundance or occurrence of animals, but I try to focus on documenting more specific behaviors. Documenting the feeding and killing behavior of pumas is just not possible through direct observation, but using camera traps opens up this world to observation. By using camera traps with a focus on specific behaviors, I have been able to document many novel behaviors and observations. Basically, I use the cameras to gain insights into the day-to-day lives of animals that are so secretive that they are impossible to observe otherwise.
What drew you to focus your research on carnivores?
I have always been most interested in carnivores, their natural history and ecology. I think partly it is the difficulty in observing and learning about them, which makes discoveries that much more rewarding. I always encourage students to focus their research on species or questions that intrigue them—that makes their research so much more rewarding.
What things do you wish more people knew about your field, or what are the misconceptions that you think people may have about your area of expertise?
People really don’t understand how difficult the work is. It is not just petting puma kittens—it is long, difficult days in the field, often without reward or seeing the animals that you are studying. More than half of the people I bring with me in the field for a day never come back.
You have published over 50 papers in scientific journals. Which one is your favorite?
The next one.
In addition to your research work, you’re an adept wildlife photographer. Which of your wildlife photos is your favorite, and how did you capture that particular moment?
Wow, that’s kind of like trying to pick your favorite kid. Here’s 8:
This was just an amazing moment. I had been photographing the jumping mouse (it’s not often that I find a jumping mouse) and then a scrub jay swooped in and grabbed it. Just look at the expression and body language of the jumping mouse in this moment.
This was offshore from one of my favorite places in the world - Kaikoura, New Zealand. I was trying to capture the majesty of the Southern Alps, and the enormity of the wingspan of Royal Albatrosses—and in this moment I was able to get the wings encompassing the Southern Alps.
This is the photo I think about more than any other. I don’t know if the photo is all that great, but it was an unforgettable experience. This was a huge puma, noticeably bigger than any I have ever caught in California. In this moment, he looked up from feeding, and I think he was deciding whether to attack me or not.
This photo took me a year to plan out. I wanted to photograph a bird on this perch, but with the background (peach blossoms). There is only about a week of the year where it would be possible—and luckily this junco landed on the perch.
I just love fox puppies. And puma kittens.
Another photo, where it is the perfect moment. A beautiful Baltimore Oriole calling among apple blossoms.
Bison are probably my favorite animal (non-carnivore division). Bison are so powerful and this one weathering a snowstorm reminds me of why I like them so much.
How do you feel about receiving the Early Career Investigator Award?
It’s quite an honor, I was honored just to be nominated. We have a bunch of new early career investigators at PRI, and I’m looking forward to seeing what everyone accomplishes in the next few years.