A coyote resting in Lincoln Park, Chicago. Wikimedia Commons

Name that critter—from the comfort of your couch.

Citizen scientists, Chicago needs you. More specifically, Chicago's Urban Wildlife Institute needs you.

Two weeks ago, the Institute, which is part of the Lincoln Park Zoo, launched a website called Chicago Wildlife Watch in collaboration with the city's Adler Planetarium and the citizen science portal Zooniverse. The goal of the site is to help the Institute document and study the animals that live in Chicagoland, "from the Loop to the burbs," by asking for the public's help in identifying the animals in their enormous database of photos.

Here's how it works: Visitors to Chicago Wildlife Watch are shown an image from one of the Institute's camera traps, which are deployed four times a year at more than 100 locations. If there is an animal in the image that you recognize, select the animal from the list on the right of the image, answer some quick additional questions, and you're set. If you're finding it difficult to identify the critter, you can narrow down the list by physical characteristic: What color is its coat? How would you describe its tail? Does it have a stocky or lanky build?

What is this animal? (Chicago Wildlife Watch)

The effort is part of the Institute's larger mission to study and understand "the interaction between urban development and the natural ecosystem." The researchers hope to answer the following questions about Chicago's urban animal species: Where do they go? How are they doing? How do they compete? How do they interact with us? Answering such simple questions can actually help steer the direction of future conservation efforts and policy for the city's wildlife.

Coyotes foraging in a park on the Northwest side of Chicago. (© Urban Wildlife Institute/Lincoln Park Zoo)

According to the Institute's director Seth Magle, who spoke to Chicago's RedEye last week, this work used to fall under the purview of interns. As the Institute ramped up its identification efforts, the onslaught of photos—they currently have more than a million—became too much for their team to handle, so they decided to crowdsource. To date, more than 91,000 animals have been identified through Chicago Wildlife Watch.

I took a spin around the website this morning, and while I am a self-professed animal nerd, even I was shocked at how addictive the site can be. Be warned that it is easy to drown in the sheer volume of snapshots of raccoons and foxes scuttling around Chicago's outdoor spaces. A fair number of the photos I saw contained no animals at all (perhaps a misfiring motion camera could to blame), but it's easy to click on through and lose yourself to the satisfaction of identifying various raccoons, skunks, and possums.

Seth Magle sets up a camera trap in Chicago to trap data. (© Urban Wildlife Institute/Lincoln Park Zoo)

 

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