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‘Wildlife Watch’

Citizen scientist initiative focuses on animals

Diana Lafferty, left, assistant biology professor at Northern Michigan University, talks about the new Yooper Wildlife Watch program to Judy and Gilbert Martin of Chocolay Township. The Northern Center for Lifelong Learning put on a program on the citizen scientist initiative on Monday at Whitman Commons. (Journal photo by Christie Bleck)

MARQUETTE — Science doesn’t necessarily require beakers, test tubes or microscopes. Instead, it might involve just a laptop and an interest in contributing to research.

Yooper Wildlife Watch, a research and education initiative for engaging “citizen scientists” to foster an understanding of wildlife ecology across a human-impacted ecosystem, was introduced on Monday during a presentation titled “Yooper Wildlife Watch: An Integrative Citizen Scientist Program.” The Northern Center for Lifelong Learning program took place at Whitman Commons on the Northern Michigan University campus.

Leading the initiative is Diana Lafferty, an assistant NMU biology professor, with help from NMU graduate students Tru Hubbard and Amelia Bergquist.

Hopefully dispelling a myth that “scientists are hoity-toity ivory tower folks with white jackets,” Lafferty said the project will involve students at NMU and North Star Montessori Academy collaborating in the field with the use of camera traps.

“A lot of us are out there getting dirty and having a great time and out in the woods, and hopefully introducing students to what it means to be ecologists,” Lafferty said.

The project will focus on how wildlife populations and their associated communities respond to environmental change, she said.

“With Yooper Wildlife Watch in particular, we’re really interested in how humans are interacting with the landscape and what that means for some of the wildlife that we share our ecosystem with,” Lafferty said.

Camera traps are crucial to the program.

They’re also effective. She noted a camera, which uses an infrared motion detector so images can be taken at night, sometimes can take from one to nearly 100 pictures within a few seconds.

Getting answers to questions such as these are a goal of the project:

≤ How are mammals affected by roads?

≤ How do species interact or avoid each other?

≤ What habitat has the most mammals?

≤ What kinds of habitat are associated with high pine marten detections?

Hubbard said 30 cameras, which will be checked every two months, were placed in a rural-wildlife interface in Marquette County on trees along streams or paths, with scat or other signs found.

“It’ll be an extensive project over the next few years,” Hubbard said.

Why is the Upper Peninsula a good place for the initiative?

“The diversity of species is really great up here,” said Hubbard, whose particular interest is understanding how human recreation affects carnivore use and behavior.

She hopes to use the research to provide information on carnivore conservation to agencies such as the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Bergquist said the project, which has an educational research potential, will involve students in NMU’s B210 Principles of Ecology class, who will get access to a novel data set and take part in authentic scientific research.

North Star students, she noted, will be involved in camera maintenance and image classification.

It must be kept in mind that many images needed to be classified, and this is where www.zooniverse.org will be used in Yooper Wildlife Watch.

“Zooniverse is an online platform that is going to import a wide variety of research projects by allowing citizen scientists like yourself to classify an image,” Bergquist told the audience.

It also has a variety of different topics such as art and language.

Lafferty said the plan is for Yooper Wildlife Watch to be launched on Zooniverse in January. After participants set up their accounts, they choose a project. With Yooper Wildlife Watch, there will be a short training module in which people can learn how to classify an image.

“You can see how many individuals are there,” Lafferty said. “What is the weather like?”

Each project also has a field guide, she said, which takes a long time to build because many resources have to be available to volunteers.

“It takes a really long time to get all of your pieces together,” Lafferty said.

The volunteers, or “citizen scientists,” actually will classify the images.

“The way we have set up our Yooper Wildlife Watch, there have to be 10 independent classifications for every single image,” Lafferty said.

She anticipates over 100,000 images will be generated a year.

“There’s no way for any one human to go through all of that,” Lafferty said.

However, she believes it’s possible by engaging a global Zooniverse community with people interested in wildlife data — especially with help from NMU students who will have activities throughout the semester to engage with this data — as well as North Star students.

Lafferty, Hubbard and Bergquist shouldn’t have too much trouble getting citizen scientists to take part.

Judy and Gilbert Martin of Chocolay Township, along with other members of the NCLL audience, took to their laptops to peruse Zooniverse during the presentation.

“You can spend hours and hours on here,” Judy Martin said.

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is cbleck@miningjournal.net.

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