Collars, cameras and carcasses: studying urban wildlife

ROXANNE KHAMSI: When I talk about urban wildlife, I know what you’re thinking – rats crossing the street, pigeons collapsing on railings, crows fighting over a pizza crust. But urban wildlife is so much cooler and more diverse than we think. Dr. Chris Schell, assistant professor and urban ecologist at the University of California, Berkeley, is here to tell us more. He joins me from East Bay, California. Welcome to Science Friday, Chris.

CHRIS SCHELL: Hi, Roxanne. Thank you for.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Ok, Chris, so the words urban and ecology almost don’t seem to go together. Can you explain to us what urban ecology is?

CHRIS SCHELL: So we’re thinking a lot 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, the landscape generally has more people, we begin to think about the causes and consequences of biological changes in non-human and human species around us?

ROXANNE KHAMSI: What species could urban ecologists study?

CHRIS SCHELL: A number. You would be surprised at the different types of species that are studied. Of course, there’s the remarkable, mundane, and charismatic megafauna we think of – raccoons, deer, foxes, coyotes, which are my favorites, and house sparrows, pigeons, even frogs, butterflies , cougars, bobcats.

You name it. We have quite a few species that live in the city – even ones that we thought would never want to live in or around people. But they find ways to make it work.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Yeah, maybe they want to buy Domino’s pizza. Who knows?

CHRIS SCHELL: Yeah, you know, just a little slice.

[LAUGHS]

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 is learning how cities and urbanized spaces change how organisms do or don’t thrive. If we move from individuals to populations and communities, we begin to think about how different animals interact with each other. On top of that, we’re starting to think about how do these communities of non-human organisms interact with people?

And all of that is important because even extending to things like how we look at climate change and cities and urbanization together, and how that causes animals to try to make really tough decisions about the where they will survive. Understanding that in the city then allows us to better understand how human-wildlife interactions are tools for us to do conservation better, for us to think better about environmental equity and justice, for us to think about what what we need to do to manage and conserve spaces as the world and climate continue to change.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: You know, it reminds me. My parents visited me and their dog had a little fight with a raccoon in my backyard earlier this summer. But we hadn’t taken out our cameras. We missed the opportunity to save it.

CHRIS SCHELL: Oh, no.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: So I wonder, how do you study urban wildlife? What kind of tools do you use 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 wildlife remote trigger camera traps and set up this wildlife camera trap in or around all green spaces, allowing us to see which animals pass in front of the camera – number one – but number two, so that we can also see how they behave in real time in front of this camera.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Can people buy their own trail cameras?

CHRIS SCHELL: Yes, absolutely. So for anyone hearing this podcast, you can go to Amazon and buy one right now. Often what we do when we work with members of the community and they have cameras is we work in what is called co-production. So many community members and our neighbors who have cameras take these images on an SD card that is inside the camera.

After a few weeks, check this camera, check the SD card. My co-workers and I like to think of this as our mini Christmas, since we don’t necessarily know what we’re going to get on the SD card. But once we start browsing the files and seeing the pictures of different species, we get super excited.

So, for example, we’ve also captured some really interesting interactions between coyotes and people, where people will go to a particular site, and coyotes will follow right after. And all of that can be done basically by using each member of the community as their own scientist and demystifying the whole process, basically deconstructing or decolonizing the whole ivory tower, sort of. So, in this way, everyone can participate in science.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: So, in addition to capturing things using a camera, there are also other methods, right?

CHRIS SCHELL: C4 is the acronym we often use. Including cameras, which is the first C, we also use GPS collars to see how animals move around the city. And it allows us to see how individuals then make decisions about how they move. The C number 3 is something that’s a bit more messy in Carcasses. Yeah, roadkill is considered something that can be trash for many others.

But for us, it’s a real goldmine of information, because we can use the tissues for genomic testing. We can use hair to examine their stress profiles. We can take fecal samples to examine their gut microbiota.

And we can use their whiskers to look at stable isotopes to infer their diet. And then, finally, the fourth C here is Community, where we will often do most of our work where we get their views, perceptions, attitudes about animals. And then we can do quantitative and qualitative analyzes to see how people’s perceptions and opinions about these animals might translate to how animals move or cities.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: So a lot of people think, you know, I live in the middle of a city. There are no wild animals here. How can people engage with wildlife in places in the city that might seem, at first glance, completely devoid of wild creatures?

CHRIS SCHELL: The simplest answer: get out there and take a walk. Even in the most urbanized cities, I guarantee you will see some wildlife. You will probably see pigeons. You may see a rat or two.

You can see those little brown birds. These are called house sparrows. But what’s really exciting about even thinking about the mundane species – the, I quote, mundane species – is that if you take the time to just look at what they do, you’ll see that they’re quite in tune with human society. By taking the time to slow down, to be mindful, even in the most urbanized areas, you will begin to see wildlife approach and around you and experience the various fascinating behaviors they exhibit.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Chris, thank you very much for joining me today.

CHRIS SCHELL: Absolutely. Thank you, Roxanne. Thank you for hosting 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 puts her skills to use for the charismatic creatures that inhabit her backyard. What did she capture? The rarely seen playful and curious faces of juncos, squirrels, etc. To watch his video and find out how you can try your hand at finding and photographing camera traps, go to sciencefriday.com/cameratrap.

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