UM researcher’s wildlife project is da photobomb

Charles E. Ramirez
The Detroit News

Nyeema Harris is using critter cams and furry photobombs to get a picture of how wild animals are doing in Michigan.

Wild turkeys huddle near the UM Biological Station.

Harris, a University of Michigan wildlife ecologist, is leading a three-year project — Michigan ZoomIn — that uses motion-activated cameras to snap pictures of wildlife in several habitats in the state. She hopes to expand her research into Detroit’s parks.

“We’re aiming to expand it into an urban site, so we’re looking at Detroit and whether or not that will be an option,” said the assistant professor in the university’s ecology and evolutionary biology department. “The series of parks Detroit has is pretty awesome. We’d have to be very strategic about where we’d place our cameras because the point is to get pictures of wildlife.”

She said she hopes to find partners and get through the permitting process to put cameras in Detroit before next summer.

Her research is focused on Michigan’s carnivores — including badgers, bears, wolves and weasels — because they’re higher up the food chain.

All of the data collected in the project will be able to help wildlife management and conservation efforts in Michigan by showing where various species can be found and how animal populations are shifting, Harris said.

As part of the project, Harris and her team are collecting and analyzing animal waste and hair fibers in three sites. One is in the woods at UM’s Biological Station, a 10,000-acre swath of land at the northern tip of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. The second is on the land at the Huron Mountain Club in the Upper Peninsula. The other is in the forests of the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge near Saginaw.

The researchers are also using more than 150 digital cameras, similar to the game or trail cameras hunters use to scout their prey, to get snapshots of animals.

However, the Michigan ZoomIn cameras are research-grade devices with unique specifications to enhance data collection, Harris said. They also have lithium batteries that last for months and memory cards that can hold thousands of images.

The cameras operate in a location for about three months. Next month, Harris will shut the project down for the winter, retrieve the cameras and use them for another unrelated project in west Africa. They’ll resume taking Michigan wildlife selfies in the summer, she said.

The Michigan ZoomIn project is the largest camera-trap study of Michigan wildlife ever done and estimates it will yield hundreds of thousands of images, Harris said.

The project’s goal is to determine where populations of carnivores are in Michigan and how they’re coping with pressures caused by humans, such as urbanization and climate change, Harris said.

“Nature has to do some adjusting around the things people are manipulating in the environment,” she said. “We want to be able to say what changes can we anticipate in the future and how might these animals respond to them.”

Funding for the work comes from the university. Harris wouldn’t say how much money the project received but did say if she receives additional funding, the project could be extended.

Adam Bump, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ furbearer specialist, said camera-traps like the ones Harris and her team use have proven to be useful tools in identifying wildlife in forests. However, it’s too soon to tell how helpful the data from the project will be, he also said.

“Camera studies have a lot of potential,” Bump said. “But there is a lot of complexity into how valuable the data actually is. It’s great that people are looking at ways to use camera-traps in studies, but we need to see the quality of the data before we can say if it’s neat information or this really helps us manage populations.”

Harris joined UM last year. Before that, she completed a fellowship at the World Wildlife Fund International’s Luc Hoffmann Institute in Switzerland.

She is working with two graduate students and two undergraduate students on the project, which launched last fall.

Sorting through all of the digital images Harris and her team are collecting and identifying the animals in them is the biggest challenge, she said.

“What we’re doing is extremely labor intensive,” Harris said. “It’s kicking our butts. The limitation is literally how many bodies we have.”

Nyeema Harris and Corbin Kuntze check map coordinates while hiking through the forest to install cameras as part of the largest-ever camera-trap study of Michigan wildlife.

Shawn Colborn, one of the grad students working on the project, agreed.

“We get thousands and thousands of images,” he said. “Processing them takes quite a bit of time.”

As a result, Harris and her team are enlisting volunteers, or what she calls “citizen scientists,” to look through the pictures and ID animals.

To ensure classification of the photos is accurate, Harris said most images will be looked at 15 different times by different volunteers. After that, researchers evaluate the consensus. If there’s a discrepancy, she said, an expert will rule on the creature’s identity.

Harris is also visiting classrooms across southeast Michigan to meet with science teachers and to demonstrate the ZoomIN website to students who could also serve as citizen scientists.

The visits are part of Wolverine Pathways and Wolverine Express, UM programs designed to expose middle school and high school students to skills needed to for college.

Anyone interested in helping catalog animals should log on to the project’s website or email