You do not need a PhD. To contribute to research on wildlife abundance and behavior in North Carolina, thanks to a large-scale citizen science project led by researchers from North Carolina State University.
Through the project, called North Carolina Candid Critters, researchers trained 580 volunteers to take explicit animal photos with heat-sensitive cameras, and then share their photos through a website called eMammal. In an article about the project in the magazine Citizen Science: Theory and Practice, Researchers reported the successes and challenges of the effort that collected more than 2.2 million wildlife photos over a three-year period and increased the number of verified mammal records that were available in the state five-fold.
“The strength of this is that you can have large-scale environmental data at the right time,” said study corresponding author Roland Kays, associate professor at the University of North Carolina. “There are a lot of people interested in using citizen science, but there are a lot of questions like: How do you train volunteers? How do you get data from them? This paper was about how we approached those questions during the progress of the project, and what are some of the solutions that we found to deal with them.”
Through the project, researchers recruited volunteers including librarians, middle school students, teachers, hikers, and nature lovers from all 100 counties. They created a dedicated online program to train volunteers in positioning and using cameras, which they loaned out through 63 public libraries. Some volunteers used their own cameras. The project was a collaboration with NC Wildlife Resources, the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, eMammal, and the NC Cardinal Libraries.
“We are the first scientific project to citizens to loan equipment with this type of scale,” said Case.
Volunteers placed cameras at 3,093 sites. Besides the extra work the research team did, they were able to obtain images from a total of 4,295 sites. While working with federal and state agencies, nonprofits, and private landowners to obtain permission for people to place cameras on public and private lands, many people placed cameras next to their homes. 54 percent of volunteers put cameras on private land.
“It’s really hard to take samples on private land because it’s hard to get permission,” said Case. “In this case, people were putting cameras on their land because they wanted to see the animals there. This is a real reward for the citizen science approach.”
Of the 2.2 million photos captured, 1.4 million were captured by volunteers, and the rest were taken by employees. From these photos, they managed to get 120,671 observations of wildlife, 45 percent of those taken by volunteers. This included 30 different mammals and three species of birds.
The researchers reviewed the volunteers’ photos again to make sure the cameras were positioned correctly, and that the animals were correctly identified. Researchers rejected less than 1 percent of camera positions for being too low, 3.2 percent for being too high, and 4.9 percent for equipment malfunctions, including cameras destroyed by bears.
“The volunteers might not do everything perfectly the first time,” Case said. “The nice thing is that with the eMammal system, we can check to see if the camera is set up correctly. We can tell the volunteer, and next time it gets better. We were able to verify the information and give feedback to the volunteers.”
They found that the volunteers identified the animals with an accuracy of 69.7 percent. While volunteers tended to correctly identify certain species, such as white-tailed deer and wild turkey, others were more complex. They have identified river otters in North America with only 56 percent accuracy.
Researchers faced challenges in recruiting and training volunteers, managing camera equipment, and making sure they had images in the locations they needed, including in forests, open lands and developed areas. To help other researchers, they proposed solutions for how to recruit volunteers, collect data, and overcome other obstacles.
“Data management was a big challenge, and we addressed it using the eMammal system,” said Case. “Training was a problem we still had to work on. Some people dropped out because the training was so complex.”
The images will be used for multiple research projects to answer questions about wildlife abundance, reproduction, and other questions. The data will be publicly available for other researchers to use.
“The great potential of citizen science is that it can help you collect more data than you could before, across a much larger region more quickly, and in different areas such as private lands,” said Case. “It also engages the audience, and gets them interested in the sciences and sciences about nature and conservation.”
The study, “Outright Creatures: Challenges and Solutions in the Citizen Science Camera Trap Project on a Large Scale,” was published online on February 26 at Citizen Science: Theory and Practice. It was composed by Case with Monica Lasky, Ariel Parsons, Lincoln Larson, Brent Bess, Hailey Boone, and Alexandra Mash from North Carolina; Stephanie Shuttler, Ben Norton and Lisa Gatens of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Funding was provided in part by the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Scholarship.
Note to editors: The summary follows.
Frank Creatures: Challenges and Solutions in the Citizen-Scale Science Camera Trap Project.
Published online February 26 at Citizen Science: Theory and Practice.
Authors: Monica Lasky, Ariel Parsons, Stephanie Shuttler, Alexandra Mash, Lincoln Larson, Ben Norton, Brent Beez, Hailey Boone, Lisa Gatens, and Roland Keys.
DOI: 10.5334 / cstp.343
Conclusion: Citizen science projects that use sensors (such as camera traps) to collect data can collect data on a large scale without compromising the quality of the information. However, project management challenges increase when data collection is expanded. Here, we provide an overview of our efforts to conduct a large-scale citizen science project using camera traps – vocalized critters in North Carolina. We have worked with 63 public libraries to distribute camera traps to volunteers in all 100 counties in North Carolina, USA. Candid Critters engaged 580 volunteers to deploy cameras to 4,295 locations across private and public lands, amassing 120,671 wildlife records and 2.2 million photographs. We offer eight key suggestions for overcoming challenges in study design, recruitment and management of volunteers, equipment distribution, communication, training, and data management. We found that citizen science was a successful and economical way to collect wildlife records on a large scale, and that the use of the sensors allowed for testable quality and simplified acquisition. In three years, we collected nearly five times more verified mammal records than were previously available in North Carolina, and completed the work for less than the typical cost of collecting data with field assistants. The project also achieved many positive results for adult and youth volunteers. Although citizen science poses many challenges, we hope that sharing our experiences provides useful insight for those hoping to use citizen science sensors on large scales.
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