JUN 4, 2019 8:15 AM
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — As foxes and coyotes adapt to urban landscapes, the potential for encounters with humans necessarily goes up. A team of scientists is taking advantage of this fact to enlist the eyeballs and fingertips of humans – getting them to report online what they see in their own neighborhoods and parks.
One goal of the research, reported in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning, is to determine how information gathered by “citizen scientists” stacks up against data more laboriously collected by researchers who study canids like foxes and coyotes.
“Working with citizen scientists allows us to collect data over a period of years across large areas with basically no cost,” said Max Allen, a wildlife ecologist at the Illinois Natural History Survey who led the research. “Getting the same data is expensive and time-consuming using traditional methods like radio-tracking collars.”
An untested assumption is that community-generated data are reliable and valid, Allen said. Another concern has to do with the likelihood that citizen scientists will over-report sightings near their own homes and fail to observe canids in less urbanized areas, thus skewing the data to areas where humans are more likely to encounter the animals, he said.
To help address these concerns, Allen and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin, Madison simultaneously compared information collected by scientists using radio- and GPS-tracking of red foxes and coyotes with data citizen scientists shared online. The researchers used social media to recruit the citizen scientists, directing them to the iNaturalist.org website, one of the largest citizen-science projects in the world.
The study area encompassed a 6,120-hectare expanse in Madison that included the University of Wisconsin campus. The territory ranged from highly developed areas to natural areas and open water. Some of the less-developed parts of landscape were open lawns or meadows with few trees and some were covered in dense forest.