People of SU / Research / Science / Technology and Health

Seattle U in the News: Wild Hope magazine story "Urban Dwellers" Showcases Science Collaboration on Urban Critters

November 18, 2020

Seattleites are learning about the wildlife living in their midst through a community-based program created by Woodland Park Zoo and Seattle University. 

Seattle University Associate Professor of Biology Mark Jordan, PhD, is a research partner with Robert Long and Katie Remine of Woodland Park Zoo of the Seattle Urban Carnivore Project (SUCP), a citizen science-based collaboration. The project is a feature in the current issue of Wild Hope magazine.

Following are excerpts from the story.

Robert envisioned a community-oriented project that would encourage Seattleites to engage with local wildlife, gather data, and become better acquainted with their natural surroundings. Beyond its scientific value, he thought, the project would promote hope at a time when conservation can be overwhelming or even dispiriting. “I wanted people to see that at least some wildlife is thriving, right outside their front door.”

In 2017, Robert began to brainstorm with SU’s Mark Jordan, an associate professor of biology who held a similar vision. Jordan had just wrapped up a multi-year study in South Seattle, where he and his students had deployed dozens of camera traps to examine carnivore behavior in the city.

“Part of what interests me is how species like raccoons and coyotes are responding to a very different environment from the one in which they evolved,” says Jordan, who wonders if foraging strategies and species interactions change when mid-sized carnivores get packed together in urban settings. An analysis led by a former student, Destiny Mims, for example, shows that raccoons—normally active at night—foraged more during twilight hours than the researchers would have anticipated. Jordan speculates that cities are an especially resource-rich milieu for raccoons, given their flexible diet; if the restaurant is open 24/7, raccoons are going to take full advantage of the menu. Virginia opossums, on the other hand, remained characteristically nocturnal.

The camera-trapping component of SUCP currently consists of 45 survey sites spanning urban and suburban neighborhoods. All cameras are situated in green spaces, ranging from backyards to public parks, and each camera trap is assigned to a volunteer team. The project is committed to achieving diversity and inclusion in its volunteer pool—an aspiration its leaders want to prioritize now that cameras are up and running.

“We’d really like to engage more communities that aren’t traditionally part of the wildlife conservation conversation,” says Jordan, noting that initial respondents to their call for volunteers tended to be white, well-off and retired. “I think there’s a real opportunity for connecting to underrepresented communities with urban wildlife research that you don’t necessarily have with other types of research.”

Meanwhile, under COVID-19 restrictions, cities in the United States and around the world are experiencing profoundly altered patterns of human activity and movement, which could, in turn, have ramifications for urban carnivores. Anecdotally, Jordan reports, carnivores in Seattle might appear to be changing patterns as well—although both researchers emphasize that it’s too soon to know if this is a real phenomenon or if people are simply noticing more wildlife while they’re working from home.

“I suspect it’s a little of both, but I think it may be more attributable to people being in different places rather than the animals,” says Jordan.

Researchers with SUCP and UWIN plan to probe this question with cameratrap data collected before, during and after the pandemic’s stay-at-home orders. As with everything related to COVID-19, we’re in the midst of a global experiment. Prior to the pandemic, SUCP introduced the third component of its research and outreach efforts: an online portal where the public can report carnivore sightings in the greater Seattle area. The project developed “Carnivore Spotter” based on an earlier website at Woodland Park Zoo that tracked river otter observations, broadening the new site to also include black bears, bobcats, cougars, coyotes, raccoons and opossums (who are actually marsupials, not carnivores, taxonomically speaking). In addition to entering their own observations, visitors can view data points logged by others on a colorful map of Seattle, which depicts more than 4,250 reports to date.

“When I see how many dots are on the map, I’m blown away by how much interest there is in using and contributing to this site,” says Jordan. “It illustrates to me that everybody is a bit of a natural historian inside.”