UMN researchers use photos to better understand MN ecosystem

by Jordan Willauer

Netherlands resident Jolanda van Weeren spends her day working part-time at a bookstore, tending to her home and, when she has free time, analyzing pictures of Minnesota animals as part of a University of Minnesota research project.

Van Weeren and other volunteer naturalists classify species on the internet for Cedar Creek: Eyes on the Wild — an ecological research project organized by researchers from the University’s College of Biological Sciences. On the website, users can view the photos taken by camera traps on the 9-square-mile reserve near Anoka, Minnesota. The researchers hope to use the identifications to better understand Minnesota’s ecosystem. 

“The main driving force … is understanding something about our landscape and about how all the component parts interact with each other,” said Caitlin Barale Potter, the education and outreach coordinator for the project.

The researchers have data of the non-animal aspects of Cedar Creek, such as plants and soil, Barale Potter said. But they have lacked data on animals and how they interact in the area. The new photos of animals coupled with the non-animal data will give researchers a better understanding of the Minnesota ecosystem than they have had in the past.

“[Volunteers] are an integral part of the project that was built into the project from the very beginning,” she said.

According to Barale Potter, the volunteers are averaging about 25,000 classifications per day.

Van Weeren, a 49-year-old grandmother and a volunteer naturalist in the Netherlands, said in an email that she loves the project because the photos make her feel close to home. She also loves interacting with other volunteers. “[There are] so many enthusiastic volunteers that leave funny, sweet or excited notes and ask interesting questions. (I read them all),” she wrote in an email.

Digital volunteers are not only people who live in different countries, but also those right in Minnesota.

Jason Bain, a Burnsville resident, said his love of wolves attracted him to this project. He worked with wolves in Yellowstone National Park and said classifying animals in pictures came naturally to him. Bain said he has a lot of time to kill in his daily job, so he often spends his time classifying animals.

Since December, the network of almost 3,000 volunteers has interacted with over one million photos and the project is approximately 60 percent complete, as of Thursday evening.

“Minnesotans have really strong connections to the land,” Barale Potter said. “There are so many people here that hunt and fish and interact with the state on a regular basis. So to be able to virtually open the property up to people who are excited is a pretty unique opportunity.”