Outdoors

Volunteer Scientists Play Important Role In Wildlife Research Project

Two whitetail bucks battle in front of a trail camera at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve. Submitted photo / University of Minnesota
Volunteer Scientists Play Important Role In Wildlife Research Project

Wildlife researchers at the University of Minnesota want to learn how animal species interact, but they need your help.

EAST BETHEL, Minn. — Eyes on the Wild is a camera-trap project at the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve approximately 30 miles north of the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis. A network of 120 trail cameras was deployed in in 2017 across the site’s 5,400 acres. So far, the cameras have captured almost 1 million images of animals, including whitetail deer, coyotes and the bison herd that roamed part of Cedar Creek last summer.

On Dec. 20, 2018, the real work began. After collecting SD cards from the cameras — a job that would take one person a month — researchers fed the photos into a database. The high-resolution images include metadata like time, temperature and moon phase. That metadata was removed from copies of the files that were also downsized to improve upload efficiency to the project website.

This sunrise image of a whitetail deer was captured by a trail camera as part of the Eyes on the Wild research project at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve. Submitted photo / University of Minnesota

The images are hosted on Zooniverse, a citizen-science platform that allows volunteers to classify images. Popular with teachers and students, Zooniverse is also attracting a growing number of armchair scientists who enjoy contributing to wildlife research projects. Volunteers are asked to identify the number, species and (in some cases) the relative age of animals they see in photos, as well as what those animals are doing.

Once the images are classified, researchers will have an enormous pool of data that might help them better understand animal behavior and ecosystem responses — from how predators impact prey behavior to how prey behavior impacts plants. Researchers will then use this information to frame future research projects.

About Cedar Creek

The Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve is a biological field station owned and operated by the University of Minnesota. This reserve represents a meeting of the three greatest biomes of North America: tallgrass prairie, eastern deciduous forest and boreal coniferous forest. As a result, it contains a dazzling array of plant and animal diversity.

Since 1942, many world-renowned scientists have made Cedar Creek their workplace. The modern science of ecosystem ecology was conceived there in the 1940s, and the first wildlife radio-telemetry studies were performed there in the early 1960s. Modern research continues to focus on ecology and the benefits healthy ecosystems provide the planet and society.

A fox captured by one of the 120 trail cameras at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve. Submitted photo / University of Minnesota

Dr. Forest Isbell is the Associate Director of Cedar Creek and Assistant Professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior at the University of Minnesota. He’s passionate about the research that has been done to date at Cedar Creek, but he’s most excited about what Eyes on the Wild might reveal about the site’s wildlife.

“We know more about the plant species at Cedar Creek than almost anywhere on earth, but we know almost nothing about the animals,” Isbell said. “We want to learn how animals — particularly predators — impact ecosystems by altering the behavior of prey species that feed on plants.”

Early findings

Isbell said the most interesting discovery the program has revealed so far is the effect of wolves on whitetail deer behavior. “Researcher Meredith Palmer simulated the presence of wolves by applying wolf urine to vegetation in one area,” he said. “In the control area she used water. She then studied plants, soils and trail camera images to learn whether deer avoided areas with wolf sign.”

Turns out, deer did not avoid areas that might be inhabited by wolves, but it did alter their behavior. “Deer began using the ‘risky’ areas during the safest times of day, when the likelihood of interacting with wolves was lowest,” Isbell added. “We still don’t know the long-term effect this shift might have on vegetation in those areas.”

Wolves have made several recolonization attempts at Cedar Creek in recent years. During the winter of 2015, a pair of wolves appeared at the reserve more than 100 miles south of the closest known denning area. The pack eventually grew to 19 animals before they began interacting with livestock and domestic pets, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service was called in.

Cedar Creek researchers work closely with the International Wolf Center. Isbell said there is no intention to re-establish wolves at the reserve, but he wants to document any wolf activity on the property. “Cedar Creek constitutes only one-tenth of a typical pack territory, but the opportunity to study wolf interactions with other animal species is very exciting.”

How to participate

When volunteers logon to the Eyes on the Wild project page on Zooniverse, they will be served a random set of images to identify. Those same images are also circulated to other volunteers until consensus begins to develop. Photos reviewed and consistently identified by several volunteers are reviewed by a program researcher then retired from the review pool.

“In a similar project conducted in Africa and hosted on Zooniverse, volunteers were able to accurately identify animals 96.6 percent of the time,” Isbell said. “Minnesota mammals tend to be much easier to identify than African antelope species, so we’re confident that our accuracy rate will be very high.”

A coyote photo captured by a trail camera at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve. Submitted photo / University of Minnesota

The Zooniverse website also features a chat room where volunteers can discuss the project or even ask for help interpreting specific images. Volunteers can also tag images they find particularly interesting. This is especially helpful to the program’s social media volunteer, who shares those images on Facebook and Instagram.

When the program launched, 998 volunteers processed 105,000 images during the first eight days. But Isbell said there’s plenty of work to go around, “We’re going to be generating another 1 million images this year, and we really hope to connect people living in the upper Midwest with the wildlife living in their backyards.”

To start processing images: https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/meredithspalmer/cedar-creek-eyes-on-the-wild

Snapshot Wisconsin

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources launched a similar program in 2016. Snapshot Wisconsin is a year-round, statewide project to monitor wildlife. In this case, though, the agency provides trail cameras to volunteers. The cameras can be placed anywhere volunteers have access to land.

Volunteers revisit the cameras at least four times per year to collect SD cards then submit their images to the DNR staff. Copies of those images are uploaded to Zooniverse, where volunteers help researchers identify any animals present. According to the DNR website, a single trail camera can take thousands of photos each month.

Because researchers know where and when these photos were taken, they can create maps for both common and rare species across the state and visualize how animal populations change over time. Almost 6,500 volunteers have already processed 80,000 images to date, but the DNR is actively seeking more participants.

To help process images: https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/zooniverse/snapshot-wisconsin

To learn more about hosting a trail camera: https://dnr.wi.gov/topic/research/projects/snapshot/

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