Urban Wildlife Institute Projects at Lincoln Park Zoo

April 29, 2024

Since the start of Urban Wildlife Institute, its scientists have also been involved in projects that fit under the umbrella of urban wildlife research. These long-term projects have led to greater understanding not just of urban dynamics, but also the intersection of human, animal, and city health. Many of these topics thus fall under the One Health umbrella, which focuses on the interconnectivity between those three elements—and as those of us who lived through a recent pandemic know (i.e., everyone), this is an increasingly important field of study.

Biodiversity Monitoring: From Large to Small Mammals

UWI researchers have now been studying the presence of medium- and large-sized mammals for more than a decade. To do this, field cameras have been dispatched in city parks, forest preserves, golf courses, and cemeteries in four counties in the Chicago area. They’re checked and maintained four times a year at more than 100 sites, taking images continually for a month at a time.

This research has helped determine which species are present in the region and to look at population trends within wildlife communities. The project is aided by regular citizens, who can identify animals through Chicago Wildlife Watch. “No one had really looked at animals in those sites before,” UWI Senior Director Seth Magle, Ph.D., explains. “We really wanted to understand as much of this diverse  landscape as we could.”

Later, UWI researchers also started working to understand the movements of small mammals as well. These animals are not as often caught on motion-activated cameras due to their size, but scientists can collect hair and fecal samples to determine similar information and look at stress levels as well.

Liza Lehrer opens camera trap
Four times a year, Urban Wildlife Institute staffers go out and maintain the camera traps to record animal activity in the area.

Disease Risk from Ticks

UWI’s One Health team surveys regional green spaces—many of which are also sites for the team’s diversity monitoring project—to collect ticks in natural areas. By doing so, they learn about which species of ticks are present in what life stages and discover how humans can minimize their risk of catching tick-borne diseases. In 2023, zoo researchers and interns surveyed 12,470 meters of vegetation and leaf litter. They’ve also collected 1,030 ticks since 2017 at five separate sites.

The Bat Monitoring Project

Another animal that isn’t often caught on camera because of their size, as well as their nocturnal nature, is the bat. Bats are common in large cities like Chicago—but their populations are declining as they face challenges such as white-nose syndrome. UWI researchers have installed acoustic monitoring systems along with their biodiversity project tools to record echolocation calls of the seven bat species in Illinois. Through these sounds, scientists can identify different bat species and monitor populations.

The Chicago Rat Project

Brown rats (otherwise known as Norway rats) are the most successful urban wildlife species in the world, living on every continent except Antarctica. Rats damage property, they carry diseases like leptospirosis, they come into contact with humans frequently—and their numbers of growing. That makes them an important species to study. UWI does this by surveying city residents about their experiences, using cameras, and trapping rats and testing them for diseases like leptospirosis. Our researchers also work to understand the effects of measures used to eradicate rats, such as poison.

A rat burrow in one of the neighborhoods monitored by the Urban Wildlife Institute.

Black-crowned Night Heron Management

Since 2010, black-crowned night herons have spent springs and summers at Lincoln Park Zoo and the surrounding park during their breeding season. This colony, regularly numbering more than 600 individuals in recent years, has become the largest in the state of Illinois, where these herons are endangered. Zoo scientists monitor the population and have recently succeeded in tagging several of the birds to find out more about their lives away from zoo grounds.

Chicago Garden Wildlife Project

This project focusing on local community gardens, which originated in 2023, is just getting started. Considered part of the One Health initiative, it was originally an offshoot of the Chicago Rat Project and focuses on collaborating with gardening communities to promote beneficial wildlife while finding ways to prevent wildlife considered pests, like rats and rabbits. To date, more than 20 gardens across Chicago are involved, and the zoo continues to host events with local gardeners and also monitor observations of which animals—including pollinators—are visiting urban greenspaces.

Urban Wildlife Information Network

It only makes sense to expand UWI’s work to other cities so to collect information about the animal species in other urban areas. Every city is different, with its own unique makeup of wildlife. If scientists can collect long-term data on other areas, they can create a repository for knowledge that allows everyone to learn how to protect wildlife in every urban area, not just Chicago.

“The Urban Wildlife Information Network was our attempt to take these ideas, these theories that we had honed and developed here in Chicago, and expand them out to the world,” Magle says. To date, UWIN includes 53 institutional partners gathering information around the world—and the network is only getting larger.

Partners in Fieldwork

During UWI’s free program for high school classes, teachers and their students work together to collect data on local wildlife at their school site using tools like camera surveys, bat monitors, and more. In doing so, they learn about science and the diversity of Chicago wildlife while exploring conservation solutions.

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