Collars, Cameras, and Carcasses: A Study of Urban Wildlife
ROXANNE KHAMSI: When I say urban wildlife, I know what you’re thinking: rats scurrying down the street, pigeons perched on railings, crows fighting over a pizza crust. But urban wildlife is much cooler and more diverse than we think. Here to tell us more is Dr. Chris Schell, assistant professor and urban ecologist at the University of California Berkeley. He joins me from the East Bay, California. Welcome to Science Friday, Chris.
CHRIS SCHELL: Hello, Roxanne. Thanks for inviting me.
ROXANNE KHAMSI: Okay, Chris, the words urban and ecology almost sound like they don’t belong together. Can you explain to us what Urban Ecology is?
CHRIS SCHELL: So we do a lot of work thinking about how humans and animals interact with each other, as well as with plants, and what that means for the future. As cities become more urbanized, as the landscape generally has more people, then we start to think, well, what are the causes and consequences of biological changes in the human and non-human species around us?
ROXANNE KHAMSI: What are some species that urban ecologists could study?
CHRIS SCHELL: Quite a few. You would be surprised at the different types of species that are studied. Of course, there are the notable, common, and charismatic megafauna that we think of: raccoons, deer, foxes, coyotes, which are my personal favorites, and sparrows, doves, even frogs, butterflies, cougars, bobcats.
You say it. We have quite a few species that live in the city, even the ones we thought would never want to live in or around people. But they are finding ways to make it work.
ROXANNE KHAMSI: Yeah, you might want to get a Domino’s pizza. Who knows?
CHRIS SCHELL: Yeah, you know, just a little bit.
ROXANNE KHAMSI: So what do we hope to learn by studying Urban Ecology?
CHRIS SCHELL: I would say the first thing we’re interested in learning about is how cities and built-up spaces are changing the ways that organisms thrive or don’t thrive. If we scale from individuals to populations and communities, we begin to think about how different animals interact with each other. On top of that, we started to think, well, how do these communities of non-human organisms interact with people?
And all of this is important because even escalating to things like how we look at climate change and cities and urbanization together, and how that forces animals to try and make really hard decisions about where they’re going to survive. Finding that in the city allows us to better understand how human-wildlife interactions are tools for us to do conservation better, for us to think better about equity and environmental justice, for us to think about what we need to do to manage and conserve spaces as the world and climate continue to change.
ROXANNE KHAMSI: You know, that reminds me. My parents visited, and his dog had a bit of a ruckus with a raccoon in my backyard earlier this summer. But we didn’t have our cameras outside. We lost the opportunity to record it.
CHRIS SCHELL: Oh no.
ROXANNE KHAMSI: I wonder, how do you study urban wildlife? What kind of tools are you using to capture all these interactions?
CHRIS SCHELL: Well, coincidentally, you mentioned the cameras, Roxanne. And that’s exactly what we use. So we use these remote trigger camera traps for wildlife and we set this camera trap in or around any green space which allows us to see what animals are passing the camera number one but number two so we also see how are they. behaving in real time in front of that camera.
ROXANNE KHAMSI: Can people buy their own camera traps?
CHRIS SCHELL: Yes, absolutely. So for anyone listening to this podcast, you can go to Amazon and get one right now. Often what we do when we work with community members and they have cameras is work on what’s called co-production. Many of the community members and our neighbors who have cameras take those images on an SD card that is inside the camera.
After a couple of weeks, check that camera, check the SD card. My colleagues and I like to think of it as our mini Christmas because we don’t necessarily know what we’re going to get on the SD card. But once we started going through the archives and seeing the photos of different species, we got really excited.
So, for example, we’ve also been capturing some really interesting interactions between coyotes and people, where people go to a particular site and coyotes follow right after. And all of this can be done by essentially leveraging each member of the community as their own scientist and demystifying the whole process, essentially deconstructing or decolonizing the whole ivory tower, in a way. So, that way, everyone can participate in science.
ROXANNE KHAMSI: So besides capturing things on camera, there are other methods as well, right?
CHRIS SCHELL: C4 is the acronym we often use. Including the cameras, which is the first C, we also use GPS Collars to see how the animals move around the city. And that allows us to see how people make decisions about how they move. C number 3 is something a bit messier in Carcasses. Yes, road kill animals are seen as something that can be trash to many others.
But for us, it’s a treasure trove of information because we can use the tissues for genomic assays. We can use the hair to see their stress profiles. We can make fecal swabs to observe your intestinal microbiota.
And we can use their whiskers to look at stable isotopes to infer their diets. And then finally, the fourth C here is Community, where we’ll often do most of our work where we get your views, perceptions, attitudes about animals. And we can then do quantitative and qualitative analyzes to see how people’s perceptions and views of those animals might translate into the way animals navigate cities.
ROXANNE KHAMSI: A lot of people think, well, you know, I live in the middle of a city. There is no wildlife here. How can people engage with wildlife in places in the city that, at first glance, might seem totally devoid of wild creatures?
CHRIS SCHELL: The easiest answer: just go out and take a walk. Even in the most urbanized cities, I guarantee that you will see some species of wildlife. You are likely to see pigeons. You might see a rat or two.
You might see those little brown birds. Those are called house sparrows. But what’s really exciting about even the mundane species, the mundane species, I quote, is that if you take the time to observe what they’re doing, you’ll see that they’re very in tune with human society. Take the time to slow down, pay attention, even in the most built up areas you will start to see wildlife approaching and around you and experience the different fascinating behaviors they display.
ROXANNE KHAMSI: Chris, thank you very much for joining me today.
CHRIS SCHELL: Absolutely. Thanks, Roxana. Thanks for having me.
ROXANNE KHAMSI: Dr. Chris Schell is an Assistant Professor and Urban Ecologist at the University of California, Berkeley. There is a whole movement of people who are inspired by the wildlife in our neighborhoods. In our latest science arts video, wildlife photographer Carla Rhodes directed her skills toward the charismatic creatures that call her backyard home. What did she catch? The rarely seen curious and playful faces of juncos, squirrels and more. To view a video of her and learn how she can try her hand at camera trap research and photography, visit sciencefriday.com/cameratrap.