Track animals on your phone or computer and help with research at the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve |

Track animals on your phone or computer and help with research at the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve

Kevin Doran
Updated: January 13, 2019 10:41 PM
Created: January 09, 2019 12:00 AM

The University of Minnesota is looking for citizen scientists to help with a new project. 

The Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve is a nine-square-mile research site in East Bethel, just north of the Twin Cities. 

According to Cedar Creek, world-renowned scientists have made it their workplace from the beginning. The modern science of ecosystem ecology was conceived there in the 1940s.


A year ago they put trail cameras up all over the property. Now they have more than one million pictures of wildlife to examine. They are really interested in one animal that's been caught on camera.

To get to the trail cameras Cedar Creek wildlife biologists wanted to check, 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS drove through deep snow and got out and hiked through forests and fields. Then KSTP saw the first sign wolves have come back; tracks in the snow.

"So we've got a beautiful wolf track here," said Caitlin Barale Potter, Cedar Creek's Education and Community Engagement Coordinator. "You can see it's almost as big as my hand. And you can start to see some of the toes."

Scientists are excited because wolves are at the top of the food chain and impact every other animal and plant where they live.

"We still have some wolves around in the area and we want to see how will they shift where the deer are, and what impact that will have on the plants in the rest of the community here," said Forest Isbell, Cedar Creek Associate Director. "And so this has been looked at in Yellowstone National Park where they've reintroduced wolves intentionally. And then they've studied how the wolves influence big animals like elk and how those elk are then influencing aspen trees and willow trees and other tree species." 

Wildlife Biologist Meredith Palmer is an expert in using trail cameras to track the movement of animals. She helped set up the cameras at Cedar Creek.

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"So we have 120 cameras set up in a grid like this. And then we have 20 cameras set up on the roads," said Palmer. "And we can use this very fine scale monitoring system to track animal movement across the entire reserve."

For the first time, there are cameras everywhere in the 5,400 acre research site. They are always on, recording life, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. They've captured photos of bears, deer, fox, birds, wolves and much more.

"We need help identifying the animals in these images," said Isbell. "We have more than a million images already."

"Citizen scientists are the backbone of this project," said Barale Potter. "Studies on other trail camera projects like this one have shown that consensus classification, having 15 or more eyes making an identification, agree with what an expert scientist would say 96.6 percent of the time, which is incredible."

It's easy to register to become part of the Eyes on the Wild online project. All you need to do is create an account, look at trail cam pictures and answer a few questions about what you see.


"So you get a chance to be an armchair naturalist," said Potter. "You get a chance to explore this landscape, at different times of year, on different parts of the property."

What can an untrained eye do that a scientifically trained eye can't?

"Your untrained eye can help us look through an enormous amount of images," said Isbell. "This would normally take years for researchers, but citizen scientists can help speed up the process."

"So by pooling the collective wisdom of many people from Minnesota and from all over the world, we're able to really quickly hone in on really accurate answers about what we're seeing in those pictures," Potter said.

It's year one of a research project they hope will go on for decades, using millions and millions of pictures to help researchers better understand a wilderness less than an hour north of downtown Minneapolis.

You are also invited to visit Cedar Creek and participate in the next wildlife survey on Jan. 26. It is a unique opportunity to improve your tracking skills, connect with nature and help Cedar Creek scientists learn about the wildlife living on their property. 

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