Collars, Cameras, And Carcasses: Studying Urban Wildlife

7:51 minutes

When you hear the words “urban wildlife,” you might think of rats scampering across a street, pigeons plopped on railings, or crows fighting over a pizza crust. But urban wildlife are so much cooler and more diverse than they get credit for, and scientists have a lot to learn from them. In the blink of an evolutionary eye, urban wildlife have quickly adapted to changing landscapes and learned to take advantage of sprawling urban areas.

Guest Roxanne Khamsi speaks with Dr. Chris Schell, an assistant professor studying urban ecology at the University of California, Berkeley. They chat about why urban wildlife is so cool, how scientists can study them, and what we can learn from our scrappy neighbors.

Mentioned On The Show

Wildlife photographer Carla Rhodes turned her skills towards the charismatic creatures that call her backyard home with camera traps. What she captured? The rarely seen playful, curious faces of juncos, squirrels, and more. Learn more in our Science Friday Video: Beneath The Bird Feeder.

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Segment Guests

Chris Schell

Dr. Chris Schell is an assistant professor and urban ecologist at the University of California Berkeley in The East Bay, California.

Segment Transcript

ROXANNE KHAMSI: When I say urban wildlife, I know what you’re thinking– rats scampering across the street, pigeons plopped on railings, crows fighting over a pizza crust. But urban wildlife is so much cooler and more diverse than we give it credit for. Here to tell us more is Dr. Chris Schell, an Assistant Professor and Urban Ecologist at the University of California Berkeley. He joins me from the East Bay, California. Welcome to Science Friday, Chris.

CHRIS SCHELL: Hey there, Roxanne. Thanks for having me.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: All right, Chris, so the words urban and ecology– they almost sound like they don’t go together. Can you walk us through what Urban Ecology is?

CHRIS SCHELL: So we do a lot of work thinking about how humans and animals interact with each other as well as plants and what that means for the future. As cities become more urbanized, as the landscape generally has more people, then we start to think about, well, are the causes and consequences of biological changes in the nonhuman and human species around us?

ROXANNE KHAMSI: What are some species that urban ecologists might study?

CHRIS SCHELL: Quite a few. You’d be surprised the different types of species that are studied. Of course, there are the notable, commonplace, charismatic megafauna that we think of– raccoons, deer, foxes, coyotes, which are my personal favorite, and house sparrows, pigeons, even frogs, butterflies, mountain lions, bobcats.

You name it. We have quite a few species that are living in the city– even the ones that we thought would never want to live in or around people. But they’re finding ways to make it work.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Yeah, maybe they want to pick up a Domino’s pizza. Who knows?

CHRIS SCHELL: Yeah, you know, just a little slice.


ROXANNE KHAMSI: So what are we hoping to learn from studying Urban Ecology?

CHRIS SCHELL: I would say, the first thing that we are interested in learning is how cities and urbanized spaces are changing the ways in which organisms are thriving or not. If we scale up from individuals to populations and communities, we start thinking about how do different animals interact with each other. On top of that, we start to think about, well, how are those communities of nonhuman organisms interacting with people?

And all of this is important because even scaling out to things like how we consider climate change, and cities, and urbanization together, and how that squeezes animals to try and make really tough decisions about where they’re going to survive. Figuring that out in the city allows us to then better understand how human-wildlife interactions are tools for us to do conservation better, for us to think about environmental equity and justice better, for us to think about what we need to do to manage and conserve spaces as the world and the climate continues to change.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: You know, that’s reminding me. My parents visited, and their dog had a little bit of a kerfuffle with a raccoon in my backyard earlier this summer. But we didn’t have our cameras out. We missed the opportunity to tape it.


ROXANNE KHAMSI: So I’m wondering, how do you study urban wildlife? What kind of tools are you using to capture all these interactions?

CHRIS SCHELL: Well, coincidentally, you mentioned cameras, Roxanne. And that’s exactly what we use. So we use these wildlife remote trigger camera traps and set up this camera trap in or around any green spaces, which allows us to see which animals are passing the camera– number one– but number two, for us to also see how they’re behaving in real time in front of that camera.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Can people buy their own camera traps?

CHRIS SCHELL: Yeah, absolutely. So for anybody hearing this podcast, you could go on Amazon and go get one right now. Oftentimes, what we’ll do when we’re working with community members and they have cameras is, we work in what’s called coproduction. So many of the community members and our neighbors that have cameras take those images on an SD card that’s inside of the camera.

After a couple of weeks, check that camera, check the SD card. My colleagues and I like to think of that as our mini Christmas because we don’t necessarily know what we’re going to get on the SD card. But once we start looking through the files and seeing the photos of different species, we get super excited.

So for instance, we have been also capturing some really interesting interactions between coyotes and people, where people will go to a particular site, and coyotes will follow right thereafter. And all of this can be done essentially by leveraging each community member as their own scientist and demystifying the entire process, essentially deconstructing or decolonizing the entire ivory tower, of sorts. So in that way, everybody can participate in the science.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: So in addition to capturing things on camera, there’s other methods too, right?

CHRIS SCHELL: C4 is the acronym that we oftentimes use. Including the cameras, which is the first C, we also use GPS Collars to see how animals move throughout the city. And that allows us to see how individuals are then making decisions about how they move through. C number 3 is something that’s a little bit more messy in Carcasses. Yeah, the road roadkill is seen as something that may be trash for a lot of others.

But for us, it is quite the treasure trove of information because we’re able to use the tissues for genomic assays. We’re able to use the hair to look at their stress profiles. We’re able to do fecal swabs to look at their gut microbiota.

And we’re able to use their whiskers to look at stable isotopes to infer their diets. And then, finally, the fourth C here is Community, where we will oftentimes do most of our work where we are getting their views, perceptions, attitudes about the animals. And we can do, then, quantitative and qualitative analyses to see how folks’ perceptions and views of those animals may translate to the ways in which animals navigate or cities.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: So a lot of people are thinking, ugh, you know, I live in the middle of a city. There’s no wildlife here. How can people engage with the wildlife in places in the city that might seem, at first glance, to be totally void of any wild critters?

CHRIS SCHELL: The easiest answer– just go outside and take a walk. Even in the most urbanized cities, I guarantee you, you’re going to see some wildlife species. You will likely see pigeons. You may see a rat or two.

You may see those small, little brown birds. Those are called house sparrows. But what’s really exciting about thinking about even the mundane species– the, quote, mundane species– is that, if you take the time to just watch what they’re doing, you will see that they are very much in tune to human society. Taking the time to slow down, pay attention, even in the most urbanized of areas, you will start to see wildlife come up to you and around you and experience the different fascinating behaviors that they show.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Chris, thank you so much for joining me today.

CHRIS SCHELL: Absolutely. Thank you, Roxanne. Thank you for having me.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Dr. Chris Schell is an Assistant Professor and Urban Ecologist at the University of California, Berkeley. There’s a whole movement of people who are inspired by the wildlife in our neighborhoods. In our latest sci arts video, wildlife photographer Carla Rhodes turned her skills towards the charismatic creatures that call her backyard home. What she captured? The rarely-seen playful, curious faces of juncos, squirrels, and more. To watch her video and learn how you can try your hand at camera trap research and photography, go to sciencefriday.com/cameratrap.

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About Rasha Aridi

Rasha Aridi is a producer for Science Friday. She loves stories about weird critters, science adventures, and the intersection of science and history.

About Roxanne Khamsi

Roxanne Khamsi is a science writer based in Montreal, Quebec.

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