Some mammals are thriving in the city

A unique, large scale study enlisting hundreds of citizen scientists with camera traps, find wild mammals thriving near humans. The findings contradict assumptions that developed areas have fewer mammals.

RALEIGH —The students in a science class at Riverbend Elementary School in Northeast Raleigh were huddled around two laptop computers. The “oohs” and “ahs” and “wow” comments were loud and long. The teacher, Rachel Polmanteer, was thrilled. But it wasn’t lab results or amazing videos explaining scientific concepts the students were watching. They were looking at photos of animals in the woods just across the parking lot from the school.

“Make the picture a little bigger,” suggested Polmanteer to one of the students. A few moments later, she and the students looked at the screen in amazement. “Yep, that is a coyote,” Polmanteer added. “Wow, that’s so cool. I told you it was out there.”

Students always believed few animals lived in those woods. But then, as part of an environmental science class, they attached a trail camera to a tree to see and better understand just what animals called the woods home. Scrolling through the photos opened up a new world in the woods.

“We’ve seen lot of deer, especially female deer,” said Kaylee Griffith, an 8th grade student. “I’ve never seen a deer in real life so it was cool to see the ribs and that there were more female than male deer.”

And those observations led to broader discussions about overall life in the forest. “Now what will be interesting to see in the spring is if we have a lot of babies,” said Polmanteer, as students continued to look through the hundreds of photos. “Think about that, because there are a lot of females.”

“I thought there would be a squirrel or two and that would be it,” said A. J. Smalls, another 8th grade student. “But it’s been amazing, I saw a lot of things I’ve never seen before and it was really fun.”

The stdents set up the camera roughly 20-30 feet from the parking lot. The school is in sight, but it is far enough into the woods to feel secluded.

“It’s not just the photos that have a great impact on the class,” explained Polmanteer as she points out the camera. “I love the experience of coming out and setting up the camera, and seeing the students experience for the first time running into a spider web, or seeing a snake on the ground, or hearing something. That’s because a lot of my students at this school have never been in the wood, they’re from the city, we don’t do that, and when they see the pictures they get so excited.”

The photos taken by the class trail camera are not just having an impact on one science class. The student’s photos were added into a database of thousands of photos from more than 1,400 trail camera locations around Raleigh and Washington, DC. The data is part of a larger study on urban wildlife.

“The great thing about camera traps is they are this basic visual sensor.,” said Roland Kays, Ph.D., director of the Biodiversity Research Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. “When an animal walks by it takes a picture, and so that’s a way we can record what animals are there in a given area."

The photos form the data points of the study. “We start by counting the animals,” said Kays. “And then we can start to say what factors are better for a species and what are worse, we can start to look at activity periods through the day, are they nocturnal, are they odurnal. We can ask if they are changing their behavior patterns when they are near humans and possibly becoming more nocturnal which we are seeing more of. We can also tell things about the animals if they are healthy or skinny.”

Researchers harnessed the power of large-scale citizen science. Volunteers placed cameras along a continuum of development based on population density, ranging from wild to urban, exurban and suburban. The study included areas with large forests, small forests, forest fragments, open areas and residential yards.

“Different species have different requirements for habitat,” said Arielle Parsons, research associate at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. “Some species like yards, like red fox for example, while others are more forest dwelling like bobcats or gray foxes. So we tried to cover all of our bases so we could get a good idea of what’s out there.”

The study found it’s more of a jungle than anyone thought out there in the suburbs. Wild mammals are able to thrive near humans.

“Traditionally we think of these cities as biological deserts where there is not a lot of wildlife,” said Parsons. “So it’s always really surprising when we see how much wildlife is out there and that it is coming really close to us in our yard and in our suburbs.”

The finding challenges the long time assumption that developed areas have fewer mammals and a smaller variety of mammal species. But there are good news/bad news findings in the research. While the study shows mammals can adapt to humans there’s also a warning that green space and open areas must be preserved. Large predator species don’t adapt well, which shows the importance of preserving green areas for habitat.

“The idea that we already have lost some of our bigger species here a long time ago becomes really clear as you look at the photos,” explained Kays who points to wolves as an example. “Wolves used to be everywhere but now they only live in limited area. So it’s an encouraging sign that wolves are still with us, but we want to be careful not to promote this as a reason to stop conserving wild areas.”