Wild Cam: Community scientists help detect North Carolina wildlife

It’s impossible for researchers to be in many places at once, and sometimes spots on private land are off limits altogether. That’s where community scientists come in.

In North Carolina, researchers usually gather data about wildlife population numbers through hunter harvest reports. But that data left out information about animal numbers on private lands and other areas.

“We were looking for an alternative way to collect data on a large scale,” said TWS member Roland Kays, a research professor at North Carolina State University and the lab head at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. “At the same time, we were interested in engaging different groups of the public that are non-hunters.”

Kays and his colleagues turned to camera traps. They recruited and trained volunteers, renting camera trap equipment to them through local libraries across North Carolina. In a study published in Citizen Science: Theory and Practice, Kays and his colleagues detailed the benefits of using community scientists in this way as well as some of the downfalls.

Kays, the corresponding of the study, and his co-authors developed a community science project called the North Carolina Candid Critters program to conduct their research. Participants were tasked with collecting and identifying images of wildlife around the state. But the team was just as focused on the volunteers as they were on the wildlife. Researchers wanted to find out how successful the community scientists were at this.

In collaboration with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, eMammal and North Carolina Cardinal Libraries, the team trained 580 volunteers to deploy camera traps and share the photos on the eMammal website, where they could identify species like the raccoon (Procyon lotor) above. Researchers would then check their work.

Recruiting volunteers wasn’t the hard part, Kays said. Using social media, news outlets and emailing mailing lists, the team “did really well with recruitment,” he said. “One of the things we struggled with was keeping them on board.”

That’s because including community scientists on camera trap research required more training than other types volunteer research that may just require personal observations. “It’s more complicated when there’s a device involved,” he said.

The team was able to recruit volunteers in all 100 counties in the state, including library patrons, middle school students, teachers, hikers and nature enthusiasts.

They trained volunteers using an online program that taught them how to set up and use the cameras. Kays and his colleagues provided options for where participants could set up their cameras — either in pre-approved locations on federal or state lands or by their own homes. Some domestic animals, like the cat (Felis catus) above, showed up in photos, as did more cryptic species.

More than half of the participants chose to put the camera traps on their own properties, which meant collecting more data than usual from private lands. That could be particularly useful information, Kays said, since most of the state is in private hands where researchers often can’t gather data. “People coming to us saying ‘I want to see what’s living on my property’ worked out well from my perspective,” he said.

After comparing the project’s costs to the costs of field assistants traveling around the state to complete the same research, Kays found the use of community scientists saved money.

After three years, the project collected more than 2.2 million photos, with volunteers contributing more than half of them. The photos captured 50 mammal species and three bird species. Overall, in just that short period, the volunteers and researchers collected about five times the number of verified mammal records that were previously available in the state.

Not all the photos were accepted. Researchers rejected some for cameras being placed too low or too high or for equipment malfunctions, like being destroyed by black bears (Ursus americanus).

The community scientists turned out to be almost 70% accurate at identifying the correct wildlife species. Some species, like white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), were easier to identify than others. Volunteers were only 56% accurate in identifying the North American river otter (Lontra canadensis).

Information collected by community scientist during the project was helpful to managers when it came to the spread of invasive species like the feral hog below. Kays said the findings from this data will be published in future research.

Community scientists also captured photos of reintroduced species like elk (Cervus canadensis) and federally endangered species like the red wolf (Canis rufus) below, which will provide important conservation implications to managers.

One of the challenges with a project like this, Kays said, is that some areas of the state may not have been represented. For example, in this project, open fields were less represented, he said.

As a result, he and his colleagues had to add cameras themselves to some of these spaces to supplement the data.

Kays said the study design may also be more difficult to implement in more rural areas, where there are fewer people to recruit. But in North Carolina, citizen scientists helped add wildlife information to researchers that would have been harder to get otherwise. They can help researchers collect data across larger areas, more rapidly, in more private areas.

“It shows the combination of citizen scientists and sensor camera traps in this case can produce broad-scale monitoring, and that is useful for addressing research questions,” he said.

This photo essay is part of an occasional series from The Wildlife Society featuring photos and video images of wildlife taken with camera traps and other equipment. Check out other entries in the series here. If you’re working on an interesting camera trap research project or one that has a series of good photos you’d like to share, email Dana at dkobilinsky@wildlife.org.

Header Image: A coyote (Canis latrans) in Dare County pants to keep itself cool in the hot weather. Community scientists went through training to help set up camera traps and collect and decipher images like this one.
Credit: North Carolina’s Candid Critters Project