It’s not every day that school projects get to live on forever at the Smithsonian Institution. But that’s exactly what happened when students around the world created a network of wildlife camera traps—at times capturing more photos of rare and endangered species, such as Bengal tigers, than researchers in dedicated preserves.
Children from 28 schools in the US, Mexico, India, and Kenya were recently part of an experimental push to transform students into citizen scientists.
Outfitted with camera traps and a bit of help from professionals, the students collected 13,710 detections of 83 native mammal species, including six endangered animals such as the black rhinoceros, Bengal tiger, and the newly endangered beisa oryx.
The project was helmed by Stephanie Schuttler, a research associate at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Schuttler and an international team of authors published their findings to the journal BioScience on Wednesday.
Eventually, the program grew to include schools in Maharashtra, India; Jalisco, Mexico; and Laikipia County, Kenya.
“I was nervous we would just get [photos of] stray cats and dogs,” Schuttler told Motherboard, “but the diversity that we captured” was a pleasant surprise.
The students at a school in India who captured more photos of Bengal tigers than researchers were “super proud” of their footage, Schuttler said. “I still get tiger photos from some of them because they live really close to tigers—literally in their backyards.”
Kenya’s schools stood out for having the highest species richness, the study notes, logging a total of 37 native species. Their traps also included footage of two animals not captured by cameras at local conservancies, namely the endangered African wild dog and critically endangered black rhinoceros.
Even students in North Carolina saw some exciting predators. Several urban coyotes, which only recently moved into North Carolina and are thriving there, were caught on their cameras.
The expansive effort started in North Carolina where select teachers in five counties were trained on camera trap protocols. The team also showed educators how to use eMammal, a software built by the Smithsonian Institution that lets people upload and identify camera trap photos.
“The most important thing is set [the traps] at knee height on a tree,” Schuttler explained, “making sure they’re low enough to capture little animals on the ground as well as big animals.”
Each school was provided with motion-activated cameras that were placed around the campus according to protocol. For the most part, Schuttler said, the children were as adept at setting up their traps as adult citizen scientists. There was some concern about theft—for example, "issues with drug cartels” in Mexico—but not enough to deter the project, Schuttler said.
The students’ findings were then reviewed by experts and stored for perpetuity at a Smithsonian Data Repository.
“Yes, they see cool animal photos but ownership of data is important and so is contributing to real scientific study,” Schuttler said.
“Scientists hundreds of years from now might even be looking at your photos so they really have purpose and meaning.”