Science / Technology and Health

Critters in the City

Written by Dean Forbes

June 30, 2021

Seattle is a top spot for mammal sightings, including opossums, tree squirrels and coyotes, according to a recent national study and research paper co-authored by a Seattle U biology professor.

Would it surprise you that urban Seattle is a top spot for mammal sightings, including opossums, tree squirrels and coyotes?

That’s among the localized findings of the first national mammal survey called Snapshot USA conducted by the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in collaboration with more than 150 scientists. A paper detailing its findings is published in the journal Ecology.

One of the scientists and co-authors is Seattle University’s Mark Jordan, PhD, associate professor of biology in the College of Science and Engineering.

When comparing species across the country, Seattle stood out for being in the Top 10 for detections of the number of species, including being #3 overall among western states, #5 in the country for coyote detections and first among western states for opossums and tree squirrels, according to Jordan.

“These results show that not only do we have wildlife right here in the city, but we have an incredible variety of species,” says Jordan. “There is no divide between ‘nature’ and ‘the city.’ Nature is all around us.”

Urban mammals are a research focus for Jordan and his students. Jordan is a research partner with Robert Long, PhD, and Katie Remine of Woodland Park Zoo, who created the Seattle Urban Carnivore Project (SUCP), a community science-based collaboration to explore how urban carnivores live and interact with people across the greater Seattle area.

In August 2019, the project launched the Carnivore Spotter website that allows community scientists to report sightings of coyotes, bears and other critters that are making increasing appearances in our urbanized environment.

Research projects such as Snapshot USA rely on volunteers to collect data.

“By putting wildlife cameras into the hands of volunteers, this project was able to directly engage people with wildlife research,” says Jordan. “Our community science volunteers were active participants in an ongoing research study and by sharing their experience with their friends and families, they became ambassadors for coexistence with urban wildlife.”

More about Snapshot USA

For two months in fall 2019, researchers collected more than 166,000 images of 83 different mammal species captured by 1,509 motion-activated camera traps from 110 sites located across all 50 states.

White-tailed deer were the most common species detected—34,000+ times at 1,033 camera sites—followed by eastern gray squirrels and raccoons. Pygmy rabbits, mountain beavers, hog-nosed skunks and marsh rabbits were among the least common mammals photographed. Yet, the overall detection winner was the coyote, which was detected in all 49 continental states—not in Hawaii, however.

In an interesting twist, developed areas tended to have the highest overall mammal detections, with three of the top five sites for total mammal activity being urban: Urbana, IL, Baltimore, MD and Washington, D.C.