Season 30- Spring 2024 is here! Check out our Talk page to learn more and see this blog about how we are using these data!

Season 30- Spring 2024 is here! Check out our Talk page to learn more and see this blog about how we are using these data!

Research

Science

Cities can be hostile places for wildlife, with threats coming from habitat destruction, roads and traffic, humans, pets and large numbers of invasive species. However, with proper management, urban areas can house a number of important wildlife species, including carnivores and small mammals.

To assess the biodiversity of the greater Chicagoland area, Lincoln Park Zoo’s Urban Wildlife Institute has established monitoring stations within city parks, forest preserves, golf courses and cemeteries in parts of Cook, Lake, DuPage and Will Counties including downtown Chicago. Motion-triggered cameras are deployed four times per year at more than 100 sites to determine which species are present and to assess spatial and long-term patterns in wildlife communities. Knowing where Chicago’s urban wildlife is located will help us to better conserve it.

Photo data from monitoring stations also contribute to research by the Urban Wildlife Information Network, a collaborative group of diverse researchers housed in institutions across the globe working to understand urban wildlife.

This collective knowledge paves the way for future studies on the behavior and ecology of specific urban species. It also provides city planners, wildlife managers, researchers, and the media with the tools needed to better manage human-wildlife interactions and make cities part of the solution to the biodiversity crisis.

Our Scientific Questions

Where do they go?

We don’t know as much as we’d like about species in urban systems. Even basic facts like what types of habitat attract which species are often unknown in cities and are important questions we are exploring (Gallo et al., 2017). Finding out where certain species are most likely to occur allows us to target conservation and management efforts to ensure we can coexist with our wildlife neighbors.

How are they doing?

While we can’t directly measure populations with the data from our cameras, we can get a sense of which species are most common, which may be in decline, or the status of their physical health (Murray et al., 2021). This can help us make recommendations to improve conditions for the species that are in trouble.

How do they compete?

We know almost nothing about how species in urban areas might compete with one another, engage in predator-prey dynamics, or avoid each other (Gallo et al., 2019). Preliminary results indicate that the normal community interactions we observe in natural systems don’t apply to urban areas, where entirely new dynamics seem to be in place. By evaluating our camera images, we can begin to assemble the first complete picture of an urban ecosystem, including how all the species interact.

How do they interact with us?

By also collecting data on humans, and on pets like cats and dogs, we can get a sense of how animals in urban settings react to the people who make the city their home (learn more about studying urban ecosystems during COVID-19; Zellmer et al., 2020). Some animals may be attracted to sites that are often visited by humans, while others may be looking for more secluded places. Humans are a critical part of the system, and our camera data allows us to understand our impact, as well as the importance of food and habitat.

Research

In 2023 our team analyzed how accurate Chicago Wildlife Watch users were at identifying (or tagging) nearly 150,000 camera trap images uploaded to the project. After comparing user tags to our own ‘gold standard’ tags, we were excited to find that participants were highly accurate! By far, Chicago Wildlife Watch users were most accurate at tagging empty images and common species found in our study area, such as white-tailed deer and raccoon. This is great news, as these kinds of images (i.e., empties and common species) make up the vast majority of the photos uploaded to the site.

Figure 1. This plot displays how annotation accuracies vary across species found in and around Chicago.

What’s more, we used tagged images from Chicago Wildlife Watch to parameterize a classification model, which means we can now estimate known sources of variations across images and participants to more precisely integrate Zooniverse tags into our studies on urban wildlife ecology. For example, the more agreement different users had on a single image (such as 7 Zooniverse participants agreeing there is a coyote vs. 4 Zooniverse participants tag dog and 7 tag coyote), the more likely that image would be classified correctly. Likewise, we now know with high certainty which tags we can accept ‘as is’ and which species we may want to verify by experts. As one example, in over a decade of camera trapping, we can count on one hand how many gray fox photos we’ve collected. On Zooniverse, however, rare species are tagged more often, possibly because a user may be excited to tag a rare species. However, don’t let this knowledge influence how you tag photos, if you think the photo is a gray fox, tag it as such.

We’re so grateful to all the hard work of our participants and can’t wait to learn more about the wildlife in and around Chicago through your efforts! If you would like to read more about the results of this study, check out our article in Biological Conservation here.