“Capturing” Wildlife on the Move

Scientists from across the National Estuarine Research System have conducted the first-ever North American inventory of coastal wetland wildlife. Using 140 cameras 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 Koaloa Maui (Hawaiian ducks) and Florida’s armadillos. This archive provides a unique foundation for addressing important wildlife science and management questions on our changing coasts.

Creating the Inventory

At each site, scientists positioned their camera traps to explore patterns in wildlife use in local wetlands. They collected images over the course of summer 2022, and at 15 sites, for an entire year. To ensure the resulting images were directly comparable across diverse sites and wetlands, the researchers developed a universal protocol for everyone to use. This ensured that the camera traps were all placed in similar habitats, at the same heights, and using the same settings. Staff from each site periodically recovered collected images and sent them to the team at the Narragansett Bay Reserve for processing and analysis.

Tracking wildlife with camera traps in coastal wetlands was effective, but surprisingly challenging! Wetland grasses constantly wave in the wind, resulting in blank images from motion-detection cameras. Tall, dense vegetation prevented effective sampling at some locations, and physical disturbance by some mammals (e.g., cows knocking cameras over) and birds (e.g., birds perching on top of cameras) impacted camera functioning.

Some habitats monitored in this project

New England Spartina Marsh

Pacific Salicornia Marsh



What we’re learning

Although analysis is ongoing, some trends are already clear.

Coastal wildlife is diverse.

The team documented more than150 species of wildlife in just one summer across North American wetlands. The diversity was astounding, including varied species such as armadillos, bobcats, wolves, mountain lions, turkeys, owls, and so many more.

Certain types of wildlife are everywhere.

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.

Native and non native species abound

The team documented many native species, but also found that feral or domesticated animals were common. This points to the need to better understand how these and other types of non-native species affect our wetlands and the native species that use them.

People use wetlands, too!

A side benefit from or project was a series of photos that also clearly demonstrate the many ways that humans use and value our coastal wetlands, including activities such as birdwatching, kayaking, hunting, school field trips, and even bicycling!

Next steps

In future analyses, the team 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?

Wildlife Inventory