Into the Hood: A Coyote Story
Throughout history, there have been various “sightings” that have become infamous. Sightings of the Loch Ness Monster in Scotland, for example, or Bigfoot in the Himalayas. Along the Eastern seaboard of the United States, however, the most common creature sightings are of coyotes. Stuart Wine, Sara Gagne, and Ross Meetemeyer have completed a study that uses citizen science as a means of more accurately tracking the relationship between urban ecosystems and coyote encounters.
In the past, most coyote science has been completed using information on coyote environments and traditional methods like radiotelemetry (a measurement using radio waves from a remote device to gather information). This study is different in that it uses socioeconomic data and citizen science to draw conclusions about human0coyote encounters.
Citizen science is exactly what it sounds like- everyday citizens’ reported observations about their environment. Using public reports of coyote sightings in addition to US Census data tracking building density, household income, educational attainment, and occupation, Wine et. al concluded that the use of citizen science and socioeconomic data in addition to the traditional methods proved highly effective in drawing more detailed conclusions of human-coyote encounters.
Building density, household income, and occupation had a positive influence on the probability of a human-coyote encounter. Coyotes preferred areas with golf courses and large forested parks, which tend to be located in areas of high human densities, high incomes, and high educational attainment. In addition, high building densities mean that there is a higher probability of a human seeing a coyote and thus reporting it. It was hypothesized that higher income and human-coyote interactions were positively correlated because those with higher incomes tend to have more manicured lawns and available resources (gardens, pools, shrubbery, tree cover, etc.) for coyotes.
Though this study offers new insights into the body of information available on human-coyote interactions, perhaps more important is the implications it offers for the use of citizen science as a resource for scientific studies. Though this study suggests that citizen science is highly important and useful for academic work and science that relies on observation, it also suggests that studies shouldn’t rely on citizen science alone. Firstly, citizen science is accompanied by many methodological challenges, including but not limited to observer quality, accuracy of observer recollection, and variation in sampling, all three of which have the potential to result in study error and bias.
Secondly, the abundance of citizen science data available might not be representative so much of the species in question as it is representative of the number of humans observing them. For example, in a highly dense area, there may be ten reported coyote sightings but all ten individuals are seeing the same coyote, as opposed to a less densely populated area that has three reported coyote sightings, but all three are of different coyotes.
These caveats should not deter scientists from using available citizen data, but it should bring awareness to both the advantages and disadvantages of using citizen science, in addition to sparking discussions on how best to mitigate the negative effect the disadvantages pose.