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‘Citizen scientists’ sought for urban wildlife project

From your couch or desk, help researchers better understand Athens’ animal populations

 

They’re always a hot topic for social media or neighborhood listservs: Wildlife in our backyards.

But what do we know about these animals who inhabit urban spaces alongside people? Now, a project recently launched in the Athens area aims to shed some light on the local wildlife. Part of a global project called the Urban Wildlife Information Network, or UWIN, it’s a partnership of researchers that uses wildlife cameras to understand animal ecology and behavior in our local communities.

“By comparing data through the network, we can understand differences in animal behavior across regions and find patterns that remain constant around the globe,” said Michel Kohl, an assistant professor of wildlife management at the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources. “We’re getting real-world data to help us understand where and when wildlife are interacting—or not—with the people and places of Athens-Clarke County.”

In Athens, Kohl worked with county officials to install 26 cameras (plus one across the county line in Oglethorpe County) in April. In accordance with the program, cameras are set up for one month, then re-installed every three months. Cameras are placed in a variety of public parks, county properties and privately owned wooded areas.

So far, Kohl and his team have gathered a lot of information—37,262 photos in April and July, to be exact. But since cameras are triggered by any movement, not all images are of animals. This means Kohl and his team must sift through individual images to determine which are useful to the study—and which are just branches blowing in the wind.

This is where residents come in. Kohl is looking for volunteers to help tag photos that have been collected in the past few months.

“Our hope is that this research can serve as an avenue for engaging the public in learning more about the wildlife in their community,” said Kohl. “This includes volunteer opportunities where members of the public can work with our team at UGA to sort and classify urban wildlife photos.”

Anyone with a general knowledge of wildlife can take part; the time commitment is flexible. Volunteers will start with 100 photos to classify, which should take between 30 and 60 minutes to complete. Volunteers are asked to complete the batch within a week, and then they may request additional batches.

To sign up, visit bit.ly/Athens-Wildlife.

The project already involves some local citizen scientists—Kohl is working with students at Cedar Shoals High School, which hosts a wildlife camera, to help with the classifications. But the more volunteers he has, the more information can be processed before the next batch of images is collected in October.

By measuring where and when wildlife activity is happening, Kohl said, we can better understand how animals are changing their behavior based on human activity. Information can be used to help inform more sustainable development, for example, or help encourage activities such as birdwatching in local parks.

This information is also valuable in reducing human-wildlife conflict. In fact, Kohl said some of the first questions they aim to answer involve urban predators, such as coyotes, raccoons and foxes.

“Because of the large amount of data we collect, we are able to answer a variety of questions. But we plan to focus initially on our urban predator community to understand how they are distributed across the landscape,” he said. “Focusing on these species, we are interested in understanding how socio-economic conditions such as neighborhood wealth, access to city parks and similar metrics relate to urban wildlife distribution and, in turn, impact how different segments of Athens’ human population experience and interact with wildlife.”

For anyone who has ever shared a coyote or deer sighting with their neighbors, it’s an opportunity to take that curiosity a step further. For more information about the project and to see images from other communities, visit urbanwildlifeinfo.org.

“We hope that, at minimum, we can provide exciting and interesting information to the Athens-Clarke community about the wildlife that exists in their own backyards,” said Kohl.

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