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"Was that a coyote?" New tool helps us understand urban carnivores and learn about safe coexistence

Posted by Elizabeth Bacher, Communications

An image of a coyote is captured on a motion sensor remote camera through the Seattle Urban Carnivore Project. Photo courtesy of Seattle Urban Carnivore Project / Woodland Park Zoo and Seattle University

A healthy ecosystem is one in which plants and animals interact in a dynamic balance. They work together in a way that creates a sustainable and interconnected support structure for the whole environment. All different kinds of creatures, ranging from bees to bobcats, have an important role to play. But some of them—and the behaviors they exhibit—can be misunderstood or even feared. 


Most people think the word “carnivore” refers to any animal that eats meat as a primary component of its diet. This is accurate, but the word “carnivore" can also refer to specific mammals that are classified in the order Carnivora. This scientific grouping is not based on diet, but is instead related to a way of classifying animals based on shared characteristics—in this case the structure of their teeth.

A Seattle Urban Carnivore Project motion sensor remote camera documents a group of raccoons in the greater Seattle region. Photo courtesy of Seattle Urban Carnivore Project / Woodland Park Zoo and Seattle University.
Urban spaces and the suburbs that sprawl around them are growing, which restricts some carnivore species to more remote regions, while forcing others to adapt to sharing habitat with humans. In 2018, Woodland Park Zoo and Seattle University scientists collaborated to launch a new study: The Seattle Urban Carnivore Project. This study explores how carnivores—ones in the scientific order Carnivora such as coyotes, raccoons, and bobcats—live and interact with people across the greater Seattle area. 

Seattle University associate professor and research scientist, Mark Jordan, hikes with his son to check on one of the Seattle area remote cameras. Photo credit: Melinda Hurst Frye

The project is currently collecting image data using dozens of remote cameras set across a range of urban to rural locations across greater Seattle. The goal of the project is to raise awareness about the carnivores that live in our urban areas, to promote safe coexistence with humans, and to dispel myths about risks related to the presence of carnivores, all while learning more about their ecology and behavior. The project is part of the Urban Wildlife Information Network, coordinated by Lincoln Park Zoo’s Urban Wildlife Institute. The Network is a partnership of researchers across the country who use standardized wildlife-monitoring protocols to understand the ecology and behavior of urban wildlife species. By pooling data across multiple North American cities, the network is seeking to understand why animals in different cities behave the way they do, and what patterns hold true around the world.


Now we’re asking you to join us in this study, by reporting your Seattle-area carnivore sightings using a new “Carnivore Spotter” tool. The data you help us collect by using this tool will help our Seattle Urban Carnivore research scientists better understand carnivore distribution, population dynamics, interactions with humans, and ways that we can safely navigate the habitat we share.

Image courtesy of Seattle Urban Carnivore Project / Woodland Park Zoo and Seattle University

The new Carnivore Spotter tool that just launched allows you to report your sightings of local carnivores including black bears, bobcats, cougars (a.k.a, mountain lions), coyotes, red foxes, raccoons and river otters. Even though opossums are not part of the order Carnivora (they are actually North America’s only marsupial) they are also included in this study and we invite you to submit opossum sightings as well.

These kinds of animals are often misunderstood, and sometimes feared because of perceptions that they are a threat to people and pets. But the truth is that they are an important part of our environment and can, for example, help keep rodent populations in check. Humans can safely share the habitat with many kinds of carnivores, and we have been doing so for a long time, often without even knowing it.

A Seattle Urban Carnivore Project motion sensor remote camera captures a pair of black bears in the greater Seattle region. Photo courtesy of Seattle Urban Carnivore Project / Woodland Park Zoo and Seattle University

The new Carnivore Spotter tool lets you become a community scientist and help with important research. You can submit the information about the species and the number of animals you saw, plus the date, time, location of your sighting (via phone GPS or “select on map”), and more. You can upload media, such as photos, videos or sound clips. The intuitive interface is easy to navigate and provides helpful identification resources for each of the species. You can also explore the sightings that you and others have contributed, filtering by the type of carnivore, the neighborhood, or dates and time of day to see if you can find patterns in the observations.

We are excited to begin community engagement through the use of the Carnivore Spotter tool, to expand our knowledge of urban carnivores in greater Seattle, and to support coexistence. You can find the new tool at: The Seattle Urban Carnivore Project is among several field conservation projects that Woodland Park Zoo supports through its Living Northwest Program. From western pond turtles and Oregon silverspot butterflies to raptors and river otters, the projects focus on species recovery, habitat protection, wildlife education and human-wildlife conflict mitigation across the Pacific Northwest.