Should you be taking pictures of roadkill?: Citizen science aids research efforts

Woman in a black shirt smiles at the camera while holding out an iPhone and standing in front a large monitor showing a page titled

Dr. Garneau presenting research on her RoadkillGarneau project back in 2012. (Gerianne Downs/SUNY-Plattsburgh)

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Dr. Danielle Garneau, a wildlife ecologist and professor at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, is an attentive driver. The serpentine roads of upstate New York, which Garneau drives along daily, are trafficked with possible hazards — robust cyclists, seasonal Ski-Doo drivers and meandering families on walks, to name a few. 

But what Garneau is really scouting for is roadkill. 

When coming upon a flattened porcupine or lamentable roadside squirrel, Garneau pulls over. Grabbing her smartphone, she opens up iNaturalist, a social network that allows users to map and share global observations of biodiversity. She enters data into her device, noting the date, time, species, weather, road type, location, habitat surrounding, and more. Snapping a picture, she uploads her photo to numerous studies taking place on the app. In recent years, her observations, and those of other citizen participants, have been added into global wildlife connectivity and roadkill long-term surveys. Some of those projects include iNaturalist’s Global Roadkill Observations project and Adventure Scientists Wildlife Connectivity project, and SquirrelMapper

The Global Roadkill Observation study’s more than 15,000 international contributors have identified 3,641 species of roadkill globally. Species from the Crab-Eating Fox in Cumaral, Columbia to a Black Copper Rat Snake Hin Yung, Thailand were documented with research-grade identifications. This plethora of global wildlife documentation, which Garneau contributed to 227 times, will be used by scientists around the world to understand important conservation questions. The study’s page emphasizes that they are collaborating with “organizations globally to record roadkill observations as both evidence of a species occurrence and of wildlife-vehicle conflict.” 

As her prolific contributions suggest, Garneau is not new to the rising world of road ecology. She has been studying and documenting roadkill since 2008. Her awareness of the questions surrounding road ecology started from an education standpoint. She is one of several researchers in the area with projects that focus on roadkill patterns; others include Dr. Erika Barthelmess at St. Lawrence University and Dr. Tom Langen at Clarkson.

“I found a need in my courses, students were curious,” Garneau said. “It is a good project to learn about wildlife using roadkill as an index of species abundance in the region. It helps students gain skills in animal ID and spatial analysis using geographic information systems (GIS). It also has the potential for community engagement and service learning.” 

Garneau recalled the first launch of her initial wildlife monitoring study. 

“A former student had mentioned she rarely sees Virginia Opossum near SUNY Plattsburgh during school, while in the Albany region she sees a lot,” Garneau said. “We were discussing Dr. Erika Barthelmess’ roadkill research paper and commented on how interesting it was that opossum were common roadkill in St. Lawrence County, in contrast to their rarity in Clinton/Essex County during our roadkill surveys since arriving at SUNY.” 

With the help of her students and Dr. Curt Gervich, an environmental planner and fellow SUNY-Plattsburgh professor, they commenced a survey of workers in the region who are on the roads for their jobs. School bus drivers, delivery drivers and mail carriers filled out the forms. The team started mapping for opossum hotspots. 

Over the years, as the project developed, Garneau went through trial and error to find a way to keep all of the data together. At first she used a handheld GPS and camera to document specimens while adding relevant information to a huge excel sheet. As this became increasingly cumbersome, she then moved onto Epicollect, a data-gathering smartphone platform. Eventually, she even created her own project using the Epicollect app. Featured on NPR, the Epicollect project, titled RoadkillGarneau, successfully documented Garneau’s findings, as well as other contributors spanning the globe. In fact, in the early stages of the app project, an Austrian professor reached out to translate the RoadkillGarneau project, and use it in his classroom and research in Austria. 

Unfortunately, the app project has not been active since 2019 due to smartphone technology rollouts not keeping pace with the app code. Garneau was discouraged by the issues outside of her control, but did not stop the research. Instead, Garneau switched to the iNaturalist app, which contributes daily observations from a global network of citizen scientists. 

“(Data gathering) got a lot easier with the help of iNaturalist participation,” Garneau said. “Opossum are now one of the top roadkill species logged on my daily drive to work. The increase in frequency of opossum roadkill in Essex and Clinton Counties likely reflects an increase in abundance –– indicating resident populations that are reproducing. We are continuing to pursue contributing factors to this trend. Perhaps they are capitalizing on regional land-use changes, including on urban and agricultural habitat. It also offers us an opportunity to mitigate wildlife losses by informing the public and engaging with local organizations.”

Garneau sees her roadkill research as a practice of citizen science, a new and growing field of research helping create new scientific knowledge through the collaboration of citizens in scientific research. 

According to Garneau, “Scientists have learned to understand the value of community participation for engagement, as well as to grow the scope of observations of particular species of interest.”

This is an important step toward helping communities understand the value of science. According to a 2015 analysis, “The direct involvement of the public in research projects ensures that they are less concerned about the findings and purpose of science as well as exposing them to the scientific process. This has the potential to combat the public skepticism of science when confronted with debates in areas such as climate change.”

Beyond aiding different scientific circles with essential research, citizen science is having a tangible effect in increasing public safety and conservation impact.

A 2020 article from the Journal of Nature Conservation found that citizen science platforms are helping to mitigate roadkill collisions on European roads. The authors found that the rise in platforms allowing citizens to report roadkill has the potential to increase public participation in both traffic safety and nature conservation. The study notes, “volunteers contribute significantly to collecting data on species that are not typically recorded in official databases.”

Research like this supports that everyday citizens can have a direct impact. As of the 2015 analysis, “The term ‘citizen science’ is increasingly appearing in peer reviewed journals, indicating the wider use and acceptance of this term.” Now, Garneau has noticed a rise in citizen science app usage, even in her non-scientific circles.

Pandemic-fueled boredom may have led to an increase in families wanting to identify the backyard birds they have been seeing more of. Or, maybe people are beginning to see tangible effects of climate change in their hometowns, and they want to help in any way possible. Or, perhaps more and more educators, like Garneau, are introducing these growing technologies into their classrooms so students can feel a part of the change. 

Want to try citizen science yourself? If roadkill doesn’t suit your interest, you can document the animated birds in your backyard, catalog the critters running around at your local park or search for mollusks in nearby water bodies. Plant species can also be documented. Turn citizen science into a family weekend outing or a unique date idea. There are a myriad of projects to discover and impacts to be made.

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Biodiversity, citizen science, data, ecology, education, iNaturalist, research, Roadkill, storyfest, Technology

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