Researcher to set up cameras to study Michigan wildlife
DETROIT — Critters of Detroit, smile! You’re on candid (trail) camera, from now until February.
A University of Michigan researcher is expanding her work on the largest camera-trap study ever conducted of Michigan wildlife, in which the images of animals in their habitat are captured using motion-triggered cameras. The study has previously focused on remote parts of the Upper Peninsula and woodsy areas of the northern Lower Peninsula and mid-Michigan.
But now Nyeema Harris wants to learn how meat-eating animals in the city of Detroit live their secretive lives.
“We’re really excited to see the wildlife community that’s in Detroit, and we’re going to compare that to other parts throughout the state of Michigan,” said Harris, an assistant professor in the university’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.
The study is focusing on carnivores, which are animals that eat meat. Harris said she expects to capture images of raccoons, coyotes, opossums, maybe even bobcats.
“We’re trying to see what’s actually here,” she told the Detroit Free Press .
The researcher received city permission to install the cameras in 26 parks throughout the city, where they will gather shots from now until February. Once the winter survey is done, Harris and her team will trek back out to retrieve their equipment and examine what images were captured. But because the city survey allows for good cell phone reception, Harris said, she’s also using some cellular cameras that send images to her email inbox as they’re shot in the woods.
Harris said she plans to come back to the city for a summer series of research as well. She and her team are putting an emphasis on avoiding paved walkways and other areas where people would be more likely to be captured on-camera, she said.
“We’re not here trying to monitor people; we’re monitoring wildlife,” she said, adding that all parks where the research is occurring will have signs informing park-goers.
There are many questions to answer about how carnivores live in Detroit, and how it compares with their more rural counterparts, Harris said.
“We’re thinking about what time of day an animal is active — does that vary in an urban site in comparison to a rural site?” she said. “Are they using the habitat differently because they are co-existing with people and traffic and stores and schools nearby?”
The team is also collecting animal feces, which can provide a wealth of information about the animals’ lives.
“Do the coyotes in Detroit eat something different than the coyotes in the (Upper Peninsula), for example?” Harris said.
The fecal analysis will also check for microbes and parasites, to see whether they are different when wild animals are in closer proximity to domestic dogs and cats, she said.
“We’re also looking at their stress hormones, which we can get from their feces as well,” she said. “Are they more stressed in an urban space?”
Assisting Harris in trail cam installation in Palmer Park was university prospective PhD candidate Ke Zhang, a recent graduate from the University of Florida’s Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation.
“I did some similar research before, but this project is different,” he said. “It’s a more urban area, so there will definitely be more influence from interaction with human activities.”
The study locations — which, in addition to Detroit, include the 10,000-acre university Biological Station near Pellston, the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge near Saginaw and in the Upper Peninsula north of Marquette — provide a gradient of animal information moving from very remote and rural areas to highly urbanized ones, Harris said. It will help inform both wildlife management and conservation efforts, she said.
As climate, habitats and how people live and use urban areas all change, Harris said her research might provide insights into how the animals living nearby will respond.
Is Harris worried about her cameras in a city with high crime rates? They’re literally off the beaten path, and are locked to trees, so they wouldn’t exactly be an easy heist.
“That’s a risk we take every time we put an expensive piece of equipment in the middle of nowhere,” she said, adding that the cameras have tags explaining who she is and the camera’s purpose.
Harris said she is reaching out to schools and community groups to inform them about the park trail-cam research, to answer their questions, address their concerns and see whether they want to get involved.