If you’ve ever travelled by car on crowded highways or country roads, you’ve seen the remains of the ones that didn’t make it. And if you live in a city, passing roadkill on a long drive may be one of the rare situations where you see wildlife at all. Collisions with animals are staggeringly common. In Europe, cars claim 29 million mammals and 194 million birds annually, Lisbon’s Centre for Environmental and Marine Studies estimated in 2020. Meanwhile, in the US, over 90 million mammals and anywhere up to 340 million birds will spend their final fleeting moments facing headlights each year.
The authorities responsible for dealing with the dead – public works personnel and animal control officials – don’t have long to do their jobs. The longer the creature remains on the road, the greater the risk to other cars and their passengers. Not to mention the potential threat of disease the dead fox or rabbit poses to humans, livestock and wildlife. Because of this time pressure, many carcasses are collected and disposed of in landfill. An aversion to death in many societies means that these untold millions are regarded as merely an unfortunate by-product of the road system. It requires bold thinking to reframe the waste as a resource. Worldwide, scientists and members of the community are examining the issue with fresh eyes. Here are some of the people who aren’t looking away.
Surveying the carnage
Fraser Shilling,a professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy at UC Davis, heads the California Roadkill Observation System, a research project which encourages members of the public to document their sightings of roadkill and submit them online. As of August 2018, the website had collected over 58,000 observations from more than 1,500 users in less than ten years – from retirees to high school students. For Shilling, the bodies littering highways are an essential tool for understanding animal populations. “I sometimes think of the roads as a continuous wildlife sampling system,” he told Vox. Because of randomness of collisions, the different types of animals hit by cars accurately represent the ecosystem of the surrounding area.
David Wembridge, a surveys officer with UK wildlife charity, the People’s Trust for Endangered Animals, agrees. “While recording road kill can be a little gruesome, high numbers of road kill can indicate a healthy population of mammals in the surrounding landscape,” he explained to BBC Northern Ireland. “In life, mammals are often difficult to survey, so by recording casualties that are easier to observe, it's possible to get an idea of total numbers and how population changes from year to year.”
Because introduced species are just as likely to be killed on the road as native animals Shilling has used his database to track the movement of the Eastern grey squirrel and the Eastern fox squirrel into California. “They're both invading different parts of the Western grey squirrel’s habitat, and we can see that in the roadkill data," he says.
Road users are helping scientist Fraser Shilling map the spread of pests – like the invasive Eastern fox squirrel in Northern California
Photo: California Roadkill Observation System, 23 December 2014 – 23 March 201
Learning from disaster
Due to the public stigma surrounding death, as well as European Union legal requirements, it has has been official practice to remove carrion from German national parks – depriving scavenger animals like lynx of their food source. When an influential 2019 study highlighted the plight of Europe’s disappearing scavengers, leading scientists like German Peter Südbeck rose to challenge the taboo around death. It took a dramatic weather event in the Netherlands, resulting in the sudden deaths of 3000 horses, cattle and deer, to present a new way forward.
The Oostvaarderplassen, part of Niew Land National Park, is one of Europe’s oldest nature reserves. The shock deaths of thousands of grazing mammals during a 2018 Winter cold snap showed how an influx of large carcasses in turn drove an increase in the numbers of insects and other small lifeforms. The nutrients were absorbed by local plant-life too, which experienced rapid growth in the following months. A different investigation into a 2016 Norwegian electrical storm revealed how 323 reindeer struck by lightning and instantly killed, ultimately nourished ravens, golden eagles and wolverines.
Just as Emma Spencer recycles roadkill for her scavenger studies in the Australian outback, Peter Südbeck is learning from the Norwegian and Dutch studies to boost scavenger numbers in Germany. “The motto of German national parks is ‘let nature be nature’,” he told BBC, “but we skipped out this natural process of what's happening with a dead animal.” Head of Niedersachsisches Wattenmer National Park in Lower Saxony, he is leading his team in an initiative to bring back the bodies of locally important species like roe deer to locations in the park – scheduled to begin in September 2022. They will be eagerly awaiting the findings, with cameras trained on any new signs of life entering sites. A sister project in the Bavarian national forest has already proved popular, with live feeds of lynx feeding capturing the public imagination. In June 2021 bearded vultures were reintroduced to Germany for the first time in 100 years; with any luck, there’ll be soon be more of them on the scene.
Bearded vultures were until recently considered extinct in Germany. A young captive bird was recently released in a remote cave in Bavaria’s Berchtesgaden National Park
Reuben Holt// 19May 2022 // #GoingGreen
Reuben Holt is an M.A. student at HMKW Berlin where he studies journalism