Bringing Wild Mammals to the Classroom: The MammalWeb Program

Image Credit: Lazy Daisie, CC BY-SA 3.0, Image Cropped

There’s a certain age you hit when you just can’t name your third favourite mammal anymore. I often quietly pray that the day my kid stops asking weird questions about animal snot never comes, but I know it’s probably not far off. That eagerness to learn at a young age, especially about animals, is what ecologist Sammy Mason has managed to tap into over the last two years of her PhD.

Sammy works with the MammalWeb project, a UK wide camera trapping initiative which is seeking to improve Britain’s understanding of its mammal wildlife. Sammy had previously worked with primary schools during her Bachelor’s degree, and when she came on board to write her PhD at the University of Durham in 2017, it was something she wanted to continue.

“It kind of started off as just a little side project, where I went into a couple of schools just to trial a workshop. And I enjoyed it so much and thought it was such a worthwhile project that I’ve expanded it and it’s now most of my PhD.”

Sammy visits primary schools in north-east England during the week to talk about Britain’s mammal life. But a month beforehand, each school receives a camera that they set up in a nearby outdoor area or on the school grounds. The camera is motion activated, and records the local wildlife for the whole of the month. She then goes in to share the results with the class, as well as find out a bit about their knowledge of British wildlife.

“We have a couple of activities, things like mammal charades, games that to get them thinking about different species, and then we’ll have a look at the photos that we captured on their camera trap and also other photos captured around the country on MammalWeb.”

One of the other key outcomes is that Sammy will quiz the kids on how many native British mammals they actually know. While the answers might seem obvious to adults, kids’ perception of what constitutes native wildlife can often be quite skewed. When Sammy showed some of the results at last year’s British Ecological Society Annual Meeting, there were a few surprises. Lions, tigers and elephants showed up a lot. Mammoth and dinosaur made the odd appearance. The elusive haggis even came up once or twice.

It’s not their fault of course. The kids were aged four to eleven, and many of the have no way of readily knowing that the charismatic animals they see in the zoo or in their picture books aren’t actually native to the British Isles. Teachers will often use them as examples, as they’re recognisable from TV shows and documentaries.

It's easy for young kids to miss the fact that the animals they see in zoos aren't 'native' to the country( Image Credit: Sven, Pixabay licence)

It’s easy for young kids to miss the fact that the animals they see in zoos aren’t ‘native’ to the country (Image Credit: Sven, Pixabay licence)

Most of the kids at Sammy’s workshops could name around three animals native to Britain. Afterwards, that knowledge improved dramatically. The ability to see these creatures flitting across the screen as they review the data from the camera trap makes the presence of these species much more tangible. They’re right in the kids’ backyard.

“After the workshops you find them naming a lot of species that they wouldn’t have otherwise come across. Animals like pine martens, stoats and weasels start to pop up. Foxes, otters, voles. It’s great to see that knowledge being soaked up.”

The Benefits of Technology

One of the reasons that Sammy can canvas such a large number of schools is the increased accessibility of camera traps. Once unwieldy and inaccessible, you can buy reliable camera traps for around 50 pounds (~70 USD) these days. And all they need is a memory card and a few batteries. The images can be collected at anytime, and once they’re uploaded to the MammalWeb website they contribute to a growing database.

Thanks to the camera traps, the kids managed to capture footage of plenty of native wildlife. Even the schools which held less outdoor areas managed to generally capture a few more urban mammals like cats or rats. The enthusiasm which the traps generated was palpable, especially in schools were more interesting species popped up.

“I was in a little ex-mining village in the countryside, and the school had this nice wooded area nearby that they never used. We set up a camera trap there, and they managed to capture a couple of roe deer.” recounts Sammy.

It’s a jump in technology that has allowed the MammalWeb project to set up camera traps all across Britain. Yet while citizen science initiatives like this one are currently making huge strides in data collection, one of the problems with handing out cameras to non-scientists is that they’re often set up in areas that people think are more likely to contain animals. That might sound sensible, but it creates spatial bias, whereby the results from across the country might not capture the true diversity of the area surveyed. It might also end up with people favouring areas like woodland, which might be more culturally iconic than swamps or grassland.

It’s a potential flaw that Sammy is currently trying to rectify. She’s recently been setting up cameras in less idyllic landscapes, like moors and heathland, to see if there are key species that the other traps are missing.

Filling the Knowledge Gap

The project is important for two reasons. One, it aims to counter the stigma of Britain’s wildlife as ‘boring’. It’s a perception present in adults as well as kids, with Britain long since having lost their populations of bears and lynxes. Fascinating species like pine martens, beavers and otters often get overlooked. It’s a problem that Sammy admits can be a hindrance, even in getting funding for projects like these.

“That stigma is why I think working in schools is particularly important, so that they know these species are interesting and it’s worthwhile saving them.” adds Sammy.

The second reason that initiatives like MammalWeb are so important is that for many species in the UK, there’s a huge lack of information. Birds have traditionally been very well recorded, but mammal data is nowhere near the same level. Everything from climate change to Brexit affects British mammal populations, and without sufficient data, it’s hard to formulate conservation strategies.

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Sammy has previously worked with otters, a species which is now bouncing back in Britain, and one that many of the kids remember after Sammy’s workshops (Image Credit: Dave S, CC BY 2.0)

“Take hedgehogs for example”, points out Sammy. “We know they are declining massively, but the extent to which they are is something else. We need more data to back it up if we want to make them a conservation priority. The political and literal climate is changing so fast that if we don’t get that data quickly, we might lose certain populations before we even know they’re in trouble.”

The Future

The MammalWeb project started off as a UK initiative, but the accessibility of the website and the technology have meant that it has now expanded into other European countries. Additionally, Sammy has been setting up randomised grids of camera traps to see if the reliance on citizen science has been causing spatial bias in the results.

Projects like these are becoming increasingly common throughout Europe, with MammalWeb and initiatives like iNaturalist becoming increasingly popular. Let’s hope that these initiatives continue to engage the next generation of scientists, whilst simultaneously proving that citizen science can be a valuable contributor to both our knowledge base and our ability to conserve species.

To find out more about the MammalWeb project, visit their website here. You can also follow Sammy on Twitter @SammyMason25.

Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist currently completing his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology who has spent the whole morning stockpiling for two weeks of quarantine and is just grateful he didn’t have to wrestle a moose for a roll of toilet paper. You can read more about his research on his Ecology for the Masses profile here, and follow him on Twitter here.

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