Stephanie Johnson isn’t a gamer. She rarely racks up much screen time.
But lately, the elementary school teacher from Minnetrista has been glued to her laptop, muttering “just one more” with the same fervid intensity that she imagines video games inspire.
The reason? Scientists have amassed more than 1 million photos of Minnesota wildlife over the past year, and they are putting out the call for volunteers and armchair naturalists like Johnson to help sift through them. Researchers say the images capture the kinds of secret moments in animals’ lives that humans rarely see.
Since Johnson started clicking through photos over her Christmas break, she’s helped classify about 1,600 images.
“I literally was hooked,” said Johnson, 50.
For decades, scientists have studied plant diversity at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve, a University of Minnesota research station that straddles Anoka and Isanti counties.
Now researchers at the 5,500-acre site want to better understand the wildlife hidden in Cedar Creek’s forests, grasslands and oak savannas, adding to their deep body of existing research.
The “Eyes on the Wild” project makes use of more than 100 trail cameras scattered throughout Cedar Creek, one of the best-studied ecosystems in the world. Triggered by motion and heat, the grid of cameras has been snapping photos of animals great and small since late 2017, capturing critters ranging from wolves and bison to owls.
Scientists said data from the project, funded by Minnesota’s Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, will fuel their research on North American wildlife, including how the recent return of wolves to Cedar Creek could affect the broader ecosystem, from prey to plants.
Researchers launched the citizen science project Dec. 20, uploading the first batch of images and rallying volunteers to identify animals at eyesonwild.com.
So far more than 1,600 people from across Minnesota and around the world have put their sleuthing skills to work, clicking through the photos at a rate that has startled project organizers and left them working to get the next batch of images live in the coming days.
Researchers stress that no special skills or know-how are needed to participate. On the project website, volunteers identify the wildlife they see in each photo and then answer basic questions, such as how many animals are in the photo, whether young are present and what the animals appear to be doing.
Participants may find dramatic shots of bucks fighting, bears moving brazenly down a road or eagles battling over a deer carcass. But there are plenty of quieter moments, too, like a deer bedding down in the afternoon sun or a gray wolf surveying her territory in the winter snow.
Don’t sweat mistakes, researchers say. Multiple people will be classifying each set of photos, with scientists using algorithms to then extract the most common or likely answers.
Highly addictive work
In similar projects, scientists have found that volunteers produce answers that rival the experts. “It’s really a wisdom of the crowds,” said Meredith Palmer, a postdoctoral researcher involved in the Cedar Creek project.
It’s also the kind of work that scientists often lack the money or manpower to do themselves, resulting in enormous caches of data sitting on hard drives or collecting dust on shelves.
“It makes a lot of science possible that otherwise just would be out of reach from a time perspective,” said Caitlin Potter, Cedar Creek’s education and outreach coordinator.
Some of the images require keen eyes to spot wildlife, with animal eyes or limbs barely flashing through the trees and underbrush.
Palmer, who has worked on similar citizen science camera trap projects in Africa, said she worried at first about Cedar Creek’s fauna sparking enough volunteer interest. Deer and badger, after all, can feel a bit ho-hum next to zebra and wildebeest.
But volunteers describe a thrill of discovery on the project website even for animals they encounter regularly. The project’s abundant deer photos, for instance, can make wild turkeys feel like a sweet reward for participants like Johnson.
“When a turkey appears on screen in the project, I let out a big whoop,” she said.
Participants said that knowing they’re assisting with real research from their couches and desks keeps them clicking.
“I like this idea that I’m helping scientists,” said Teresa Root, who works as a naturalist at Dodge Nature Center and Preschool in West St. Paul. “I’ve done over 5,000 images in the last two weeks. It’s very addictive.”
For Root, a sudden photo of a pheasant can feel like finding a diamond in the dust, its bright feathers and green head glistening against the snow.
“I used to see pheasants when I was little, and I haven’t seen them in a long, long time,” she said. “It’s just beautiful.”