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The Sight Of Road Kill Makes A Pretty, Data-Rich Picture

Dec 2, 2012
Originally published on December 3, 2012 4:26 pm

Wildlife ecologist Danielle Garneau is making a habit of tracking down roadkill. She actually seeks it out, hunting for clues about larger ecological trends. Garneau records it all on a free smartphone app, EpiCollect.

Standing by the side of the road in upstate New York, phone in hand, Garneau peers down at a dead, bloody and smelly skunk.

She takes a picture of the carcass and opens the app to input data, including location, time of day, the road's speed limit and whether the carcass has been scavenged. The data gets sent to the project server, and the roadkill appears as a red pushpin on a digital map.

Roadkill may not be glamorous, but Garneau, who works at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, says these dead critters carry valuable information.

"We're looking at a fine scale at patterns of animal movement — maybe we can pick up migratory patterns, maybe we can see a phenology change," she says. "And also, in the long term, if many of these animals are threatened or they're in a decline, the hope would be that we could share this information with people who could make changes."

Over the course of the afternoon, she logs a lot of dead animals: a rabbit whose tail is about 20 feet down the road, a red squirrel with a deep gash across its back and an almost unrecognizable raccoon.

Some of it's fresh, and some of it's been pretty picked over, either scavenged by other animals, rained on or frozen. It's hard not to get a little philosophical about all the dead animals.

"We're embedded in their world, and they're embedded in our world, and the boundaries are kinda blurry," Garneau says.

By the end of the afternoon, the wildlife seems more visible. Some argue that technology has a way of cutting people off from nature, but tracking roadkill is really the opposite.

The project facilitates engagement with the natural world, even if that piece of nature is a smelly skunk decaying on the side of the road.

Copyright 2013 North Country Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.northcountrypublicradio.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now, before we get to this next story, a fair warning: The topic is a little unsettling. But we hope it might make your commute a little more interesting - because we've all seen it; some unlucky animal that didn't quite make it across the highway. We call it roadkill. But one wildlife ecologist says that these animal accidents can actually teach us a lot. North Country Public Radio's Sarah Harris has the story.

SARAH HARRIS, BYLINE: Admittedly, this is a weird sight: two women standing by the side of the road, smartphones out, peering down at a dead, bloody and smelly skunk.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC NOISES)

HARRIS: Oh, wow. You can really smell it.

(LAUGHTER)

DANIELLE GARNEAU: So this guy must've gotten hit; and flipped over onto the edge, here. Our first step is to pull up EpiCollect, and then we'll go to the "new entry" option. And the first thing I like to do is to tap, to use my current location. And you see - it pops up with the latitude/longitude, and you hit OK.

HARRIS: Danielle Garneau, a wildlife ecologist at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, takes a picture of the dead skunk. And then we input a lot of data: time of day, the road's speed limit, whether the carcass has been scavenged.

GARNEAU: Precipitation is multiple choice. I don't believe it rained here yesterday, so I'm going to say none. In terms of temperature, we'll get that when we get back in the car; it's on my dash. State is New York.

HARRIS: When we finish, all this data gets sent to the project server. And the roadkill appears as a red pushpin on a digital map. The program Garneau's using is called EpiCollect. It's free, and anybody with a smartphone can use it. Roadkill may not be glamorous, but Garneau says these dead critters carry valuable information.

GARNEAU: We're looking, at a fine scale, at patterns of animal movement. Maybe we can pick up migratory patterns. Maybe we can see a phenology change. And also, you know, in the long term, if many of these animals are threatened - or they're in a decline - the hope would be that we could share this information with people that can make changes.

HARRIS: Over the course of the afternoon, we log a lot of dead animals. We see a red squirrel with a deep gash across its back. We see an almost unrecognizable raccoon.

GARNEAU: Oh, man. This is just - like a pancake.

HARRIS: Some of it's fresh, and some of it's been pretty picked over.

GARNEAU: Scavenged, pulled apart, rained on, frozen.

HARRIS: It's hard not to get a little philosophical about all the dead animals.

GARNEAU: We're embedded in their world, and they're embedded in our world; and the boundaries are kind of blurry.

HARRIS: By the end of the afternoon, my eyes feel sharper - and I'm noticing wildlife. People talk a lot about technology cutting us off from nature. But tracking roadkill is really the opposite. You engage with the world around you - even if it is a smelly skunk by the side of the road.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Harris.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.