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News

Adapting to a closed campus, Adam Larson ’20 researches secret animal activities

June 19, 2020

When campus closed this spring due to COVID-19, Adam Larson ’20 learned that the city of Kenosha was very much open to more than a dozen species of birds and mammals. 

A pair of rabbits leap towards a trail camera in Adam Larson's backyard.A pair of rabbits leap towards a trail camera in Adam Larson's backyard.As classes at Carthage moved to remote learning, Mr. Larson knew he had to get creative in order to complete a research project for his biology class. The project, conducted under the direction of Professor Scott Hegrenes, used motion-sensing trail cameras in Mr. Larson’s backyard to observe wildlife activity at all times of the day, with a focus on nighttime activity. These camera traps were active for 1,382 hours and took thousands of photographs in March, April, and May.

“It’s fun to get to know your backyard better. You don’t have to establish a methodology or write a report to learn more about what lives in your backyard. Just set up a camera and see what you find,” says Mr. Larson.

Adam Larson ’20 positions trail cameras to observe urban wildlife in his backyard.Adam Larson ’20 positions trail cameras to observe urban wildlife in his backyard.Instead of focusing on rural wildlife in natural habitats like most trail camera research, this project focused on animals living in an urban area full of human activity.

“Adam missed my Animal Behavior course when he studied abroad last spring, so he signed up for Research in Biology to study fish mating behavior in aquariums, says Prof. Hegrenes. “The campus then closed this spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so we brainstormed and improvised a research project that could be done during the quarantine.” 

The project found six species of mammal and seven species of bird present, including secretive animals like opossums, skunks, and raccoons. The most common mammal to visit the backyard? The opossum, which hadn’t been seen without the aid of cameras by the Larson family for years.

“I was excited to see the first photo of an opossum and figured that there wouldn’t be many more, so I was surprised to see them return to the backyard night after night,” says Mr. Larson.

An opossum roams through Adam Larson's backyard, photographed by a trail camera.An opossum roams through Adam Larson's backyard, photographed by a trail camera.Curiously, the garbage cans on the property were ignored by nearly all animals observed, including the opossums and raccoons. Properly securing garbage didn’t keep the raccoons out of the backyard, but it might have stopped them from being a nuisance.

Two raccoons in Adam Larson's backyard, photographed by a trail camera.Two raccoons in Adam Larson's backyard, photographed by a trail camera.These “pest” animals have adapted to urban environments, but simple changes by residents can help animals live alongside people without causing problems. Despite urban animal diversity being lower than in rural areas, eight percent of all mammal species in the state of Wisconsin were observed in the single backyard.

“This pandemic-inspired study ended up being informative for Adam and his family,’ says Prof. Hegrenes. Whether aided by trail cameras or not, I highly recommend that everybody get to know the natural world around them, starting, literally, in their own backyard.”

Backyard cameras also captured images of hermit thrush and white-throated sparrow, which Prof. Hegrenes, a lifelong backyard birder, hadn’t seen before.