SciTech

Kids trap animals on camera for conservation

Stephanie Schuttler, a research associate at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences’ Biodiversity Lab, checks a camera designed to keep track of animals.
Stephanie Schuttler, a research associate at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences’ Biodiversity Lab, checks a camera designed to keep track of animals. Courtesy of the NC Museum of Natural Sciences

What animals do you see when you drive your kids to school? Birds, squirrels, maybe an eastern cottontail nibbling on the lawn, and if you’re lucky, some deer. Now imagine you see an elephant or a tiger. In some parts of the world this is the reality.

We are working with students to study the animals that live around their school by helping them set up motion-triggered camera traps. These silent cameras capture photos of animals that move in front of the camera, providing hard data for analysis in science and math classes, and for scientists at eMammal [emammal.si.edu] to study the distribution, abundance and behavior of mammals around the world.

In India, a camera trap on a road captures photos of people, cows and cars by day, but at night, tigers are found patrolling. In Mexico, students’ cameras frequently observe jaguarundi, a highly elusive cat, stalking local ground squirrels. In Kenya, just a dozen yards past school buildings, are elephants, giraffes, hyenas, leopards and hippos, just to name a few. Animals like the tiger and elephant are endangered, meaning that kids are not only collecting valuable data for science, but also making important contributions to conservation. Furthermore, by participating directly in scientific research, students become advocates for the animals, becoming more aware of and caring more about the wildlife they are living with.

This project also provides important opportunities for children to learn skills that will help them later in life. Some of the classrooms I work with are extremely rural with no technology, and not even power. Providing these kids with camera traps and portable laptops to share their pictures with us enables students to not only learn about wildlife, but also to develop the much-needed computer skills they can use in any career they pursue.

To have these experiences, you don’t have to go far from home. We are also working with kids right here in North Carolina to study the mammals on their school yards, a project we are expanding. Students are helping us identify where coyotes live and when they are active. Raccoons, foxes, beavers and even bears have all been caught on school yards in the state, although most come out after the school day ends. The next time you are driving to school, think about all of the nocturnal mammals you aren’t seeing, and then set up a camera trap to find them.

Stephanie Schuttler is a postdoctoral research associate in the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences’ Biodiversity Lab

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