Citizen Scientists, Cats, and Computers

All cats, big and small, like to keep secrets. It is our task as cat lovers to learn some of those secrets so we can make life even better for these beauties.

The cats don’t make it easy for us. So we fool them.

Today, technology like camera traps and GPS tracking collars collect a lot of data about unsuspecting domestic and wild cats.

Then we laypeople help the experts use these tools to learn more about cats.

Here are a couple examples of citizen science in action.

Cat Tracker

An outdoor cat usually just walks out the door, comes back many hours or days later, and tells no one what it did or where it went.

You’re probably curious about that. So are scientists who want to better understand the social behavior of domestic cats.

They also want to know what effect house cats have on the local wildlife.

You can help their research along, if you live in North Carolina and have an outdoor cat that you can harness (no leash required)

People at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and at North Carolina State University want to enroll a thousand local cats in their Cat Tracker program. As of 2014, they just had forty. (Cooper)

Each cat in the program wears a GPS harness for nine days. You then use your computer to upload that GPS information into the same database that many conservationists around the world use to track zebra and other wildlife.

You do have to pay the equipment cost – currently $62 at Amazon, per the SciStarter Cat Tracker website.

Instead (or in addition), you can fill out a Cat Tracker survey about your cat’s personality and/or send litter box samples to the program.

Would you rather hunt big cats at home with your computer monitor? The conservation organization Panthera has you covered.

Camera CATalogue

Zooniverse is another online citizen science platform like SciStarter. They’re host to Camera CATalogue, a collection of tens of thousands of wildlife images that Panthera and some other international organizations need identified.

Panthera has developed special cameras – called PantheraCams, of course – that take very high quality images of whatever wildlife passes by.

Some of the captures are works of art.

Most just show animals walking around, and some are blank. But it’s not boring.

People who have tried Camera CATalogue say it’s addictive. You never know what you’ll see next! (Braun)

There are about eighty PantheraCams out there, and only about a tenth of the images have made it online (Panthera), so this program is going to be around as long as they can keep it funded.

Europe and Latin America

Cat-related citizen science projects exist in non-English-speaking countries, too,.

For instance, there are ongoing studies of house cats in France.

Proposals have also been made for a study of endangered Mexican jaguars.

All of these projects help scientists directly, but there are indirect benefits, too.

Owners can better protect both their cats and the other neighborhood animals if they know where their pet goes after it leaves the house.

And the more interactions people have with wildlife – even when it’s only through images – the more inclined those will be to heed information about endangered species.

Finally, there are international awards for the best camera-trap images:


Featured image: Bobcats in New Mexico. J. N. Stuart. CC BY 2.0.


Sources:

Braun, D. M. August 8, 2016. Camera CATalogue: Help cat conservation without going to Africa. National Geographic, Cat Watch. https://voices.nationalgeographic.org/2016/08/08/camera-catalogue-help-cat-conservation-without-going-to-africa/ Last accessed September 19, 2017.

Panthera, Camera CATalog. https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/panthera-research/camera-catalogue/about/research
Last accessed September 19, 2017.

Cooper, C. July 25, 2014. The nine simultaneous lives of cats: Cat Tracker. Discovery Magazine. http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/citizen-science-salon/2014/07/25/cat-tracker/ Last accessed September 19, 2017.

Vergara-Huerta, J. August 18, 2017. Impulsan en Sinaloa programa de Ciencia Ciudadana para salvar el Jaguar. Tercera Vía. http://terceravia.mx/2017/08/impulsan-programa-ciencia-ciudadana-proteger-al-jaguar/ Last accessed September 18, 2017, machine translated into English.

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