Splat: Odds from the Road Kill Database

The odds a collision on the roads of Michigan will involve a deer are 1 in 5.39. The odds such a collision will result in human fatality are 1 in 5,512. It is 5 times more likely that an accidental death was caused by a fall from a tree (1 in 1,101) than it is that a collision with a deer in Michigan proved fatal.

Though states like Michigan carefully document deer-related crashes, no one keeps track of how many animals are killed or injured on the roads of America every year. This is where Dr. Splatt (real name Brewster Bartlett) comes in. Since 1992, Splatt and his colleagues have maintained the RoadKill database, a repository of information about flattened animals. Added to annually by students and adult enthusiasts, it represents one of the few concerted efforts to gather knowledge about non-human traffic deaths.

Splatt’s database has proved a relative success. In 1997 alone, more than 3,000 specimens were identified. The most common entry for that year, however, was not “squirrel” or “opossum” but “ URP” (Unidentified Road Pizza). To be sure, many of these animals were likely steamrolled to a leathery, distorted pulp. But many might have been recognizable to more attentive eyes. As the comments on the database reveal, some students were not particularly scientific in their observations. A smattering of examples:

    • “I made road kill.”
    • “It looked like pancakes.”
    • “It was splattered.”
    • “Dead things are cool.”
    • “Dead skunks smell.”
    • “We hope it wasn’t Pepe LePew!”
    • “We hope it wasn’t the Easter Bunny.”
    • “I don’t know what this goose was doing on 395 but his days of flying south are over.”

The students who made these comments could have learned something from Roger M. Knutson’s Flattened Fauna: A Field Guide to Common Animals of Roads, Streets, and Highways. The book is replete with silhouettes of dead animals, as well as advice on how to distinguish between automotive debris and genuine road kill (mufflers that look like armadillos, rusted hubcaps that look like painted turtles, dried chunks of sod that look like yellow-bellied marmots).

Most of all, the students could have learned from H. Elliott McClure, one of the ultimate cataloguers of road kill. He possessed a combination of Splatt’s enthusiasm and Knutson’s good eyes, singlehandedly identifying 6,723 specimens on 77,000 miles of Nebraska highway. His findings were as accurate as they were extensive. Among the species he identified were 316 kangaroo rats, 183 red-headed woodpeckers, 78 hog-nosed snakes, 55 mourning doves, 19 screech owls, and 14 bronzed grackles. He also found 4 coots.

Click here for an interview with Dr. Splatt.

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