A family of otters swimming near the Ballard Locks. An opossum crawling through underbrush in Riverview. A coyote, ears alert and eyes glowing in the dark, staring down a camera in Seward Park.
These aren’t just real wildlife sightings from around Seattle, they’re also valuable scientific data. And a new website, the Carnivore Spotter, aims to get nonscientists in on the action.
The Spotter invites anyone in the Seattle area to submit their carnivore sightings — complete with time, place and behavioral observations — to create a map of interactions across the region. Speckled with multicolored dots distinguishing the various species being tracked (red for foxes, black for black bears, and so on), the map also offers audio, video and photography of encounters where possible.
“[We] knew that people were really interested in reporting their own sightings — they had stories of their own — and also that people were pretty unaware of the types of species that were coexisting with them,” said Robert Long, a senior conservation scientist at Woodland Park Zoo who’s helped manage the project.
The Spotter is an effort of the Seattle Urban Carnivore Project, a collaboration between the zoo and Seattle University. The map went public earlier this month and had racked up almost 800 reports as of Tuesday afternoon, Long said.
“I think a lot of people have already been doing this on their own neighborhood social media outlets,” said Katie Remine, the zoo’s Living Northwest conservation program coordinator and another project manager. “But this makes it a little more standardized, covers the region as a whole and we can really see trends better than if it’s all dispersed across different outlets.”
Neighborhood-based platforms like Nextdoor and Facebook can actually spread misinformation about these creatures, Long said.
“People would see animals but not know much about them, and then rumors would get started that were often not very accurate,” he explained.
The data will shed light on how carnivores are distributed across the city, where different species overlap with one another and how developed of an area animals are comfortable in, Long said.
But the submissions will also shed light on human habits, Remine said. Identifying hot or cold spots for sightings could indicate where people interact with carnivores more than usual (say, because of easy food access) or where the zoo might consider targeting future education initiatives, she explained.
“We actually coexist a lot [with carnivores] without even knowing it,” Remine said, “and hopefully Carnivore Spotter will help us to see that.”
The project is exemplary of citizen science, a movement that aims to give nonprofessionals a greater role in science by crowdsourcing data. Like other projects in the area that have recruited ordinary people to study everything from birds and butterflies to asteroids and eclipses, Carnivore Spotter fulfills two major needs in science, Long said.
“One is that there’s never enough money or time for people who are professionals to gather the types of data they need,” he said, and the second is that “much of our mission is engaging people in learning about animals and learning about wildlife so they will take that information and hopefully be voices for conservation in the future.”
That conservation doesn’t need to happen in a far-off country or involve large, charismatic animals, Remine said. It can take place right here in Seattle.
“It really all does start at home and in our own backyards,” she said. “This project gives people a way to be involved.”