Sue DePerno’s students expected to see a squirrel or two.
But her eighth-graders doubted that the cameras they strapped to a few trees outside their school, East Cary Middle, would capture images of much else when triggered by a moving creature.
East Cary Middle is unique in that it sits on wetlands. A boardwalk leads visitors over a creek to the main campus.
But it also is located in one of Cary’s most developed areas. There are three shopping centers – Village Square, Chatham Square and Cary Towne Center – located less than a mile from the school’s campus on Maynard Road.
“I was hopeful, but I was skeptical,” said Emma Whisnant, one of DePerno’s students.
“I didn’t think we’d see all that much because it’s a city area,” said another student, Dylan Cammerata.
They’re happy nature proved them wrong.
East Cary Middle is one of four Wake County schools to photograph the on-campus wildlife as part of the eMammal Project, an international scientific study funded by the U.S. State Department. Other local schools are North Garner Middle, Carroll Middle and East Wake Middle.
The schools, along with the Bombay (India) Natural History Society and Museo de Paleontolgia de Guadalajara in Mexico, installed motion cameras around their buildings and are sharing the photos with each other online.
At East Wake Middle, eighth-graders were thrilled to see a variety of animals with their four cameras scattered around the woods and pond nearby the campus since mid-December.
“They were amazed with how many different ones there were,” said eighth-grade science teacher Karen Curry, who added that they had discovered two coyotes amidst a flurry of squirrels and deer.
“It’s important that the students learn how animals adapt to their environment,” Curry said of the importance of the experiment.
DePerno’s class checks the cameras about every two weeks. They already have captured images of deer, rabbits, raccoons, opossums, feral cats and a pair of foxes fighting each other.
“I was surprised by the number of feral cats,” said Alexis Bridges, one of the students.
Participants in Mexico haven’t uploaded anything yet. India have uploaded photos of chevrotain, dhole, mutjac and a leopard.
A dhole looks similar to a fox but has bigger teeth.
A chevrotain looks like a small, frail deer with a stubby nose, and a mutjac looks like a larger, fuzzier version of local deer, Whisnant said.
“It kind of looked like a donkey,” she said.
The project encourages students and teachers from the three countries to share their scientific findings and cultures. The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and North Carolina State University researchers use the information to learn more about where mammals live for conservation efforts.
DePerno traveled to Mexico last fall to train for the project with teachers from India and Mexico. Students from those countries are expected to meet students from Wake County in May during an event at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh.
Students have been more engaged in DePerno’s science class because the eMammal project involves animals and requires them to go outside, she said.
“My job is to get them excited about science,” DePerno said. “If I catch them now, then maybe they’ll stay on it and excel at it in high school.”
On a recent chilly but sunny Wednesday morning, students marched to a camera tied to a pine tree on the southwest side of the school to see what animals may have passed in front of the camera overnight.
They eased down a muddy hill and stepped across a creek before reaching the camera. They changed out the memory card and batteries while writing down its longitude and latitude on a clipboard.
“We’re not used to going outside for projects ... that’s part of what makes it fun,” Bridges said.
Next, they meandered to an area near the front of the school in hopes of relocating one of their three cameras. They considered tying it to a birdhouse, but opted for a tree with a good view of the clearing.
Students found a large log and placed it at the base of the tree to flatten a wall of thorns. Cammerata then strapped the camera to the tree, and smiled thinking about what it might capture.
“It changes your perspective about what’s going on around here,” he said.
Bridges agreed that the project makes her think twice about how she interacts with the environment on a daily basis. She said she definitely thinks about it once she’s behind the wheel.
“You definitely wanna go slow so you don’t hit any of the animals from the pictures,” Bridges said.