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Biologists Need Help Tagging Wildlife Returning Home After Fires. Which LA Animals Can You Identify?

A bobcat rolls in the dirt on a trail.
The bobcat is scent marking by rolling in the dirt near a heat-sensing trail camera near Decker Road in the Santa Monica Mountains.
(Photo: Courtesy National Parks Service)
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After the 2018 Woolsey Fire destroyed wildlife habitat in the Santa Monica Mountains, virtually all animals left. Now many have returned - and biologists are asking the public for help identifying them.

To understand how to help wildlife recover after fires, researchers want to know which animals best adapt to a scorched landscape.

For an answer, UCLA grad student Chloe Nouzille set up 60 heat-sensing cameras on wildlife trails. They sense the heat of an animal passing by and snap photos. Lots of them.

"We've generated over a million photos," Nouzille said.

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And now, she needs help tagging them all, identifying the species, and that’s where you come in.

She put the request out to the Zooniverse. It is a website whose name is a mashup of the words zoo and universe, and it's where scientists post projects the public can help with.

A fawn walking on a trail in the mountains
The photo of the fawn was taken along Trancas Canyon by a trail camera that senses the heat of the passing animal.
(Photo: Courtesy National Parks Service)

Nouzille's project,Wildlife of Los Angeles has 100,000 of her million trail cam photos uploaded so far, with more to come. At the site, you see a snippet of video that may or may not have an animal on it, and you use a field guide on the screen to identify the critter, from a field mouse to a mountain lion.

She says that artificial intelligence software is not sufficiently developed to identify the different species, so people power is needed, and lots of it.

"This project would not be possible without volunteers," she said.

It's easy and fun, even kids can help. And those who do will be helping scientists understand how to help animals thrive after fires scorch their habitat.

A mountain lion walks on a trail at night, illuminated by a camera flash
The uncollared mountain lion photo was taken in Chesebro & Palo Comado Canyon. Only the mountain lions that have been captured and given a collar have names like P-22, L.A.’s best-known mountain lion. This one has never been caught and collared.
(Photo: Courtesy National Parks Service)

Identifying which animals are returning most quickly to a burned area and which are slower to return is important as climate change brings larger and more intense fires to Southern California.

"One of our worries is that with the frequency with which we have fires in our mountains, we really don't know what the recovery will be like," said National Parks Service biologist Justin Brown. "If it was just one fire, say, every 20 to 30 years, you could be pretty confident the wildlife and floral communities will return back to normal."

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But frequent fires of high intensity can affect that return time and the ecosystem as well.

"This project is going to give us a better understanding of what it means when these fires come through and what we should expect for a wildlife community, and give us ideas on how we can help recover, post-fire," Brown said.