“Capturing” Wildlife on the Move

Aug 17, 2023

Want to learn who’s living in your estuary? Check out NERRA’s wildlife album

Scientists from across the National Estuarine Research Reserve System have conducted the first-ever North American inventory of coastal wetland wildlife. Using 140 cameras positioned in 29 estuaries, the team captured thousands of images that collectively reveal the secret lives of estuary critters—from Alaska’s bears and Mississippi’s hogs to the Koloa Maoli (Hawaiʻi’s native duck) and Florida’s armadillos.

“We were amazed by the richness and diversity of wildlife in our coastal wetlands,” says Dr. Kenneth Raposa, research coordinator at Rhode Island’s Narragansett Reserve and lead scientist for the study.
“Our cameras captured about 150 species across the Reserve System and in sites in Maritime Canada, Vancouver Island, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Baja California, Mexico. Every place had its own distinctive mix; Hawaiʻi alone had 10 unique species.”

Wildlife in coastal areas are always on the move and often highly secretive, which makes it difficult to collect the data needed to protect and manage them without harming them in the process. In recent years, “camera traps” have become an increasingly popular way to characterize and study wildlife, but before now, they have not been applied to coastal wetlands in a systematic way.

At each site, scientists positioned their cameras to explore patterns in wildlife use in local wetlands during the summer of 2022, and at 15 sites, they tracked wildlife for an entire year. The result has been thousands of images of critters in action, a rich vein of data to support analysis of wildlife species and their abundance and behavior. 

“Our analyses are ongoing, but we’re already seeing trends,” says Raposa. “Along with tremendous diversity, there’s commonality. Deer and coyotes are almost everywhere, and a surprising number of domestic species like feral hogs and cows have popped up in a lot of places.”

The team also saw similar types of animals in almost every region. Nearly all places have some kind of raptor like a hawk, or a hoofed animal like deer or elk, or a canid like a fox or coyote in their wetlands.

In future analyses, Raposa and his colleagues will look at critical questions related to wildlife, habitat function, and related benefits to society. How prevalent are, for example, invasive species like the small asian mongoose in island mangrove wetlands? What percentage of wildlife species are threatened or endangered? How best can we design future wildlife studies and protocols? 

“We have a lot of data to work with now,” says Raposa. “Our goal is to use it not only to say something about the wildlife we’ve observed, but to refine the use of camera traps as another wetland research and monitoring tool. There are a lot of fundamental questions that we need to answer about how best to do this in a way that can be used to support future science and management.”

“This project is an excellent example of how the 30 Reserves around the country come together to meet a coastal management need that transcends national borders,” says Rebecca Roth, NERRA’s executive director. 

“Our system protects nearly 1.4 million acres of coastal lands and waters where every day people get to experience the wonder of wildlife. The public use of these places, combined with our System-wide commitment to monitor these places and share what we learn, adds up to a powerful tool for science and policy in the U.S. and beyond.”

Additionally, Taylor Cockrell, an intern at the South Slough Reserve, made this fun story map about the camera trap project.

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ReservesNarragansett Bay, Rhode Island“Capturing” Wildlife on the Move