The destiny of a Snapshot Wisconsin photograph is to contribute to a one-of-a-kind data set, ultimately supporting management decisions related to Wisconsin’s wildlife. However, the development of this data set is not the only goal of the project. The photos, through their collection and distribution, also serve to pursue the goal of public engagement. As the project has grown, as has our collection of incredible wildlife photos, and the photos have begun to speak for themselves. For me, personally, the fact that we can’t entirely control what the photos will look like (i.e. which animals will present themselves for a photo, and what they will be doing) adds to the appeal. Trail camera photos show life uninhibited – especially with the increasing quality of the photos as technology improves. Many of our crowd-sourcing volunteers and trail camera hosts can attest that not every trigger captures a moment in time with crisp detail, however. That is the nature of trail cameras. Recently achieving the milestone of over 2,000 cameras on the landscape, Snapshot Wisconsin has learned some simple camera deployment tricks to increase the chances of catching a spectacular photo.
A trail camera operator who wants to maximize the visual appeal of their photos can benefit from considering some properties of traditional photography. First, let’s talk about light. The camera will read the amount of available light and automatically adjust its settings, but the camera operator does have some control over the direction of light in the photographs. Some Wisconsin animals have crepuscular activity patterns, meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk, when the sun is low on the horizon. We often recommend positioning cameras to face north so that animals will never be back-lit and overpowered by the bright sun, as they may be if the camera is facing east or west. We recommend north over south because Wisconsin’s relatively high-latitude position in the Northern Hemisphere means that the sun will always be hanging in the southern sky, especially in the wintertime. The best compass bearing for the camera will undoubtedly vary from site-to-site, however. Take the above turkey photo, for example. This photo was taken at 10:42 AM, and the shadows cast by the trees indicate that the sun is behind the subject. This camera is likely facing east. In this case, the forest is dense enough to block out the light directly, and the trail appears to be coming up a slope. The key here is to consider where in the camera’s field of view the light will be coming from.
The next consideration, image sharpness, is a little more difficult to control. There are a lot of factors that can play into how crisp or soft an image will be, including how quickly the animal is moving, where it decides to enter the frame, and when it visits the camera site (sharp nighttime photos are notoriously rare). For locations along a clearly defined game or maintained trail, a few helpful considerations can be made. Our cameras tend to take the sharpest images when the subject is around 10-15 feet away. Placing the camera at approximately this distance from where animals are expected to cross in front of the camera can increase the chances that the animal will be in focus.
The final element that I’d like to touch upon is composition. What makes the composition of a photo “good” is difficult to discuss, not only because it’s a matter of opinion, but also because the composition within the frame can change based on the time of year. Not to mention, we can’t always predict where in the frame the animal is going to be captured and in what position! This is tied to one of my sentiments at the beginning of the post – the composition is often special because we can’t control the details. This concept known as “natural design”. It’s familiar to most of us who have a fondness for nature; a glen of naturally-scattered ferns has a special quality that just wouldn’t be the same if they were hand-placed. Our trail camera hosts often have a relationship with the natural design of their unique camera site, which has resulted in Snapshot staff curating individual collections of our own favorite snaps. Of course, being aesthetically pleasing does not give a photo any more weight in our data set, but the potential for such photographs is another reason that Snapshot Wisconsin is such a special project.
Feeling artsy? Check out the past blog, “Getting artsy with Snapshot Wisconsin” to hear more about the creative side of the project.
Rumor has it that summer is around the corner, which is the perfect time to sign up for a Snapshot Wisconsin trail camera! Do you have access to public land or a private property at least 10 acres in size? A computer with internet? The ability to participate for a least a year? If you answered yes to these questions, congrats – you are already qualified! If you are thinking “But why should I apply?”, here are 10 commonly quoted reasons by our volunteers and project staff:
1. It’s free!
We provide all necessary equipment (including a Bushnell camera), training, technical support and replacements at NO cost! No previous experience is required, we are happy to teach you!
2. Use your trail camera see up close pictures of wildlife.
Feed your curiosity and learn what is on your property and public lands.
3. Hosting a trail camera is a great excuse to get out into the woods.
And we’ll remind you to check your camera every three months. That way you’ll head outdoors in all seasons and be on track with the program.
4. Contribute to wildlife monitoring.
Photos collected through Snapshot Wisconsin are turned into important data used for supporting wildlife management decisions at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
5. Interact with the researchers.
Volunteers interact with the Snapshot Wisconsin research team at various outreach events, both in person and online. We also visit various groups across the state talking about the project and are available for questions on call or email.
6. Be in the know – get regular updates on data collected.
7. Socialize with other volunteers.
Our volunteers meet other citizen science enthusiasts at trainings, outreach and volunteer appreciation events. Discussions at these events can range from how the last hunting season went to secret birding locations, Packer football and so on.
Apart from the events, our Zooniverse forum allows you to interact with more 6500 volunteers from across the globe with the one thing that binds them all – interest in Wisconsin’s charismatic wildlife through the lens of a trail camera.
8. Improve your wildlife identification skills.
We provide a web-interface MySnapshot for volunteers to classify and view their pictures. Our Zooniverse forum is also a way to classify the pictures from across the state.
9. Educational outlet for students or nature center visitors.
Hundreds of educators participate in Snapshot Wisconsin. Snapshot Wisconsin is a great avenue to take your class outdoors and to bring the outdoors back into the classroom. Many nature centers also participate in Snapshot Wisconsin and are a great outlet for information on Wisconsin’s wildlife.
10. Provides an opportunity to bridge nature and technology.
Snapshot Wisconsin provides a great opportunity to bridge nature and technology. Trail cameras are non-invasive and providing a wealth of data about the secretive critters of Wisconsin. It’s a great technology for the good, connecting people and nature.
Convinced yet? Signup here: www.SnapshotWISignup.org!
Do you have a few more questions? Contact us at DNRSnapshotWisconsin@Wisconsin.org
Are you interested in seeing more wildlife on your Snapshot Wisconsin camera? The Wisconsin Woodland Owners Association (WWOA) is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to foster and encourage sustainable management of Wisconsin’s private woodlands.
Improving the habitat on your lands is not only beneficial for you, but for the wildlife in your woods as well! Members of WWOA receive their quarterly publication of Wisconsin Woodlands filled with ways to improve your woodlands and be stay informed about workshops, conferences and educational field-days conducted by forestry professionals.
In late February this year, a Snapshot Wisconsin trail camera deployed in Vilas County captured an American marten (Martes americana). This is the first time an American marten has been captured on a Snapshot Wisconsin camera! The below American marten was identified by the trail camera host, Ashley, and the identification was then confirmed by several species experts in the Wisconsin DNR. While American marten can vary in color, they are best identified by their pale buff to orange throats, dark legs and tails, vertical black lines running above the inner corners of their eyes, and bushy tails that account for one-third of their total length.
Extirpated from Wisconsin in the 1940’s, these small members of the weasel family were later reintroduced to the state and placed on the Wisconsin Endangered Species List in 1972 due to loss of suitable habitat. Marten are restricted to the northern portion of the state where they reside in dense, mature forests with preference for areas that are a mix of coniferous and deciduous trees.
Did you know that marten are excellent climbers? They use this skill not only to hunt down prey, but also to avoid potential danger. These solitary animals are very territorial, with territories spanning an average of two square miles for males and one square mile for females. Although the breeding season lasts from July to August, fertilized eggs do not fasten to the uterine wall until January or February. Females birth two to four kits in March or April, and raise their young in tree dens without any male assistance.
There is still much to be learned about American marten, as their nocturnal lifestyle and often shy demeanor make them a difficult species to study. Follow this link for more information about American marten in Wisconsin, and stay tuned to discover what rare species will be captured next on Snapshot Wisconsin trail cameras!
Before joining Snapshot Wisconsin in 2016, I knew very little about porcupines. I grew up in Iowa where porcupines were extirpated in the 1800’s. What I knew consisted of what I learned from my grandparents as a youngster on summer fishing trips to northern Minnesota. Essentially, porcupines have sharp quills and you don’t want your dog to tangle with them. I never saw a porcupine on any of these trips but was always on alert to make sure my dog, a Miniature Schnauzer named George, never wandered too far.
My first task upon joining Snapshot Wisconsin was classifying photos from Black River Falls, where trail cameras are in place to monitor the reintroduced elk population. As I was flipping through photos, I kept seeing these critters that I couldn’t identify. They were small, rounded and dark colored, always facing away from the camera, and only appearing at night. I wasn’t sure what these could be, and we had yet to create resources to help with this task, such as the Snapshot Wisconsin Field Guide*. Sometimes I classified them as raccoons and sometimes as beaver (in my defense, our early cameras didn’t take very clear photos!) Eventually, my porcupine identification skills improved and thankfully so did the photo quality of our cameras. Porkies have since become one of my favorite species captured on our cameras. Read below to learn more about these quill-y, charismatic critters!
There is only one species of porcupine in Wisconsin, the North American porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum). Worldwide there are 23 different species of porcupines. Our porcupine is the second largest rodent in North America, only beavers are larger. Their size ranges from 7-30 pounds and 20-26 inches. They typically give birth to one young per year. Young are called porcupettes.
Porcupines are herbivores, consuming tree bark, branches, buds, evergreen needles, garden produce, and even tool handles.. A common misconception is that porcupines can shoot their quills when threatened. The quills are actually loosely attached and embed themselves in the unfortunate victim when they come in direct contact with the porcupine.
Porcupines occur in the Northern and Central Forest regions of Wisconsin. To date, we have had 4,175 reports of porcupine from trail camera hosts. These have not yet been verified and presumably include a few raccoons and beavers due to my early classification mistakes and similar errors by other staff and volunteers. A handful of porcupine classifications from southern Wisconsin (Grant, Iowa and Waukesha counties) revealed the true species to be woodchuck, raccoon, unknown bird and squirrel. Species distribution maps are quite useful for classifying our photos and Snapshot Wisconsin data will be instrumental in updating these in future.
Find out more about porcupines at the links below!
*Snapshot Wisconsin Classification Field Guide (located on the right hand side of your screen while classifying photos on Zooniverse)
Within the scientific field of animal behavior, research topics such as parental care, natural selection, and feeding tendencies seem to arise far more frequently than animal play. After all, a life in the wild tends to revolve less around play and more around survival. For some animals, however, play is an integral part of their lifestyles and ultimately their perseverance. River otters, for example, are social animals with a playful and charismatic reputation. As their name suggests, river otters do not typically stray far from waterways, and some Snapshot Wisconsin cameras are perfectly positioned to capture interesting otter behavior. We have observed otters grooming together, wrestling with one another, and – perhaps most amusingly for our staff and volunteers – sliding across the snow. At the bottom of this post there is a compilation of otter slide photos.
Undeniably, sliding across snow or mud is an effective method for locomotion when you compare it an otter’s normal gate – a cylindrical body bounding on short legs. It’s the kind of body shape that glides effortlessly through the water but doesn’t demonstrate the same sort of grace on land. Those proportions make it especially tough to traverse snow, just take it from the otter pictured on the right.
Is sliding truly just an efficient way to travel, or does the otter’s seemingly spirited nature play a role in this behavior as well? A 2005 paper published in the Northeastern Naturalist suggests that it could be both. The study analyzed 5 minutes and 49 seconds of video of wild otters in Pennsylvania. The otters were observed sliding 16 times, an excessive number for the sake of conserving energy.
The term “otter slide” doesn’t just refer to a mode of transportation, however. It can also refer to the marks near riverbanks that are left when otters slide in and out of the water. Often repeated otter sliding will occur near latrine sites, where the animals will go to deposit and read scent-coded messages from other otters in the area. The slides are such a great indicator of otter presence, that the Wisconsin DNR conducts aerial surveys in the winter to help determine population trends. Whatever the motivation is behind the sliding behavior, we certainly enjoy watching it on our trail cameras.
Did you know that white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) antlers are one of the fastest growing tissues known to man? For instance, human fingernails grow between 1 to 10 centimeters a year whereas white-tailed antlers grow several centimeters each day during the growing stage! Unlike human fingernails, deer antlers are composed of veins, arteries, vessels, and cartilaginous tissue. Many hunters believe that the bigger the rack the older the buck. Yet, the inspection of teeth is the only accurate indication of a deer’s age. The greatest antler size within a buck’s life is from age five to seven. Factors sure as age, genetics, and nutrition of the buck determines the magnitude of antler size. Keep reading below to learn how antlers grow and change throughout the year!
Pedicles, the area attaching the antler to the skull, are first formed on top of a buck’s head during late winter and spring and can reach up to ¼ of the ear-length. Snapshot Wisconsin asks volunteers to classify any deer with formations less than ¼ of the deer’s ear-length as antlerless, while reserving the antlered classifications for more than ¼ of the deer’s ear-length.
To create antlers in early spring, minerals in the ribs and shoulders of the buck are redistributed in his body. Velvet (pubescent skin) covers the antler and provides nutrients through the flow of blood. These nutrients cause antler growth. During the velvet stage, the antlers are very sensitive. Any impact will be painful and could, due to the fragile state, cause breakage. Nevertheless, this sensitivity allows the buck to comprehend the size of its antlers and, eventually, the buck will move through the forest with ease.
By late summer, the antlers are fully grown. Blood flow becomes constricted, causing gradual hardening and calcification. The velvet dies off in response and, like a sunburnt human, the buck becomes annoyed and wants to peel the excess skin off. The buck rubs his antlers on trees to rid himself of the velvet, exposing glabrous antlers. This rubbing strengthens the buck’s neck, which will come in handy during the rut where the buck will compete with other bucks’ antlered attacks.
Due to reduced sunlight and testosterone, white-tailed bucks’ antlers fall off around January and February. Their body absorbs the calcium between the antler and pedicle, which weakens the antler, causing it to eventually fall off. If you’re looking for a hobby this time of year, check out shed hunting! Shed hunting is the pastime of searching for antlers that have been naturally shed by antlered bearing mammals. Another great hobby for this time of year is checking out the trail camera photos captured by the Snapshot Wisconsin project! Start viewing and classify photos today!
For more information, please visit these sources:
Are you ready to celebrate Citizen Science Day?
Before we dive into the details, let’s start with what is citizen science? There are many definitions for citizen science, which may also be referred to as community science, crowd-sourced science or volunteer monitoring. The Oxford English Dictionary defines citizen science as,
“Scientific work undertaken by members of the general public, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions.”
Citizen scientists partaking in Snapshot Wisconsin monitor trail cameras across to state to gather year-round data about wildlife. Data collected from the project help inform wildlife management decisions at the WDNR, and also engage the public in learning about the state’s natural resources. Snapshot Wisconsin has over one thousand volunteers hosting trail cameras across the state, and hundreds more from around the globe helping to identify the wildlife caught on camera on Zooniverse.
Citizen Science Day is hosted annually to celebrate and recognize the projects, researchers, and dedicated volunteers that contribute to citizen science all over the world. Mark your calendars for April 13th, this year’s Citizen Science Day kick-off! The Citizen Science Association and SciStarter have teamed up to promote events in celebration of citizen science. Are you interested in celebrating Citizen Science Day this year? Check out SciStarter’s project finder to find Citizen Science Day events near you!
You can celebrate citizen science any day of the year by participating in Snapshot Wisconsin, whether you are interested in hosting a trail camera or identifying the exciting critters captured on camera (which can be done from anywhere!)
If you are familiar with Snapshot Wisconsin’s crowdsourcing website hosted by Zooniverse, you likely have heard of the term #SuperSnap used by volunteers to denote especially captivating photos. Recently a slight typo, #SuperNap, not only gave Snapshot staff members a good laugh – but also a potentially catchy new phrase for hibernation? In this blog post, we will dive into the science behind slumbering wildlife in winter.
What is hibernation?
When winter rolls around, critters get creative with how to stay alive! In some cases, animals combat the considerable metabolic challenges of winter by entering into a state of temporary hypothermia, such as the black-capped chickadee. The ruby-throated hummingbird migrates south to Central America to avoid the entire winter thing all together. Others avoid the perils of induced hypothermia and the exertions of migrating by going to “sleep”, or hibernation. During this state of sleep the temperature, breathing rate and heart rate of animals drops significantly. To survive harsh winter conditions and scant food availability, animals can quite literally shut off for a few weeks at a time. If you’ve lived through a Wisconsin winter, you understand the appeal of this!
Not all sleep is created equal
There are two main sleep survival strategies that animals use in the winter. True hibernation is a voluntary state that animals enter induced by day length and hormone changes. These conditions indicate to an animal that it’s time to go into a truly deep, long sleep. Hibernation can last anywhere from several days to months depending on the species. Animals still need to wake up to drink water every one to three weeks. Waking up from hibernation every few weeks is a good idea to improve your immune system by removing those pesky parasites.
Torpor, similar to hibernation, is a sleep tactic animals use to survive the winter. Unlike hibernation, it is involuntary and induced by outside temperatures and food scarcity. Torpor can reduce an animal’s normal metabolic rate by 40 times in as short as two hours. In contrast to hibernation, torpor only lasts for a short period of time, sometimes just the night or day depending on the activity of the animal. Torpor can be considered “light hibernation”. To awake from torpor requires ample amounts of shivering and muscle contractions to return to a normal metabolic rate!
Torpor or hibernation?
Whether an animal goes into torpor or hibernation is usually based on body size. The smaller the body size, the more likely an animal is to enter into a state of hibernation over torpor. A large body requires removing higher levels of excess body heat which would make light bouts of torpor energy inefficient. Smaller bodied animals can adjust to winter conditions more quickly.
Based on what we now know about the differences between torpor and hibernation, can you take a guess as to what type of sleep the below animals use to get through the winter?
A. The black bear (Urus americanus) enters a state of TORPOR. Contrary to widespread belief, black bears go into torpor in the winter! They can turn their pee into protein through a urea recycling process and the females will wake up to give birth and go right back into a state of torpor! (source).
B. The chipmunk (Tamias spp.) uses HIBERNATION to survive the winter. A chipmunk can bring its heart rate down from 250 beats per minute (bpm) to as low as 4bpm.
C. Raccoons (Procyon lotor) enter into a state of TORPOR, along with species like skunks.
D. The common poorwill (Phalaenoptilus nuttallii), native to the western United States, is the only bird species known to truly hibernate in the winter (source). Birders may be familiar with their Wisconsin relative nightjars – the common nighthawk and eastern whip-poor-will!
Recently, I was running, lost in my thoughts, and—WHOOPS—almost tripped over a shivering opossum crossing the bike path! After we both recovered our wits, I jogged in place and watched it waddle away, naked tail dragging through the snow. I rubbed my gloved—and still cold—hands together and wondered, why the heck do opossums live in Wisconsin?
When I got home, some Googling revealed an interesting fact: Wisconsin is at the limit of the opossum’s geographic range. In turn, this got me wondering—what governs the limits of a species’ range?
Ecologists typically classify range-limiting factors as either abiotic or biotic. Abiotic factors do not involve living organisms; climate is the quintessential example. Biotic factors are interactions with other organisms. A classic example is competition between organisms, which is a direct biotic interaction. However, biotic interactions can also be indirect, such as when one species improves or degrades habitat for another. Abiotic and biotic factors usually work in concert to limit an organism’s range.
The opossum I saw behind Olbrich Gardens bespeaks both. Opossums, with their naked tails and ears, have a difficult time surviving cold environments. And yet, opossums live in snowy Wisconsin! However, this is a relatively new phenomenon—opossums did not occur in Wisconsin until the 1850’s, when their range expanded northward. The opossum’s conquest of Wisconsin has been aided and abetted by another organism, namely Homo sapiens. Humans provide extra resources (like trash), which help opossums survive Wisconsin’s cold winters. A biotic interaction has helped opossums overcome an abiotic limitation.
Regardless of the exact cause, opossums reach the northern limit of their range in Wisconsin. Several other species reach range limits in the state, a fact that can come in handy while classifying Snapshot Wisconsin photos. Look a photo’s metadata—what county was it taken in? In some cases, this can narrow down identification possibilities. For example, any rabbit-looking creature in Waueksha County is likely an eastern cottontail, since snowshoe hares do not occur in southern Wisconsin. A good source for species range maps is NatureServe Explorer.
For more information about opossums, see this recent Snapshot Wisconsin blog post by Emily Buege.
For more information about the opossum’s range expansion northward, I recommend reading Walsh and Tucker (2017).