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A deer stares into the camera

Despite development, Athens area continues to support wildlife, study finds

A year-long project to better understand Athens’ urban wildlife finds the county is supporting a variety of wildlife, despite its buildings and pavement.

The project involved a network of 27 wildlife cameras placed across Athens-Clarke County that collected more than 64,000 photos. Researchers worked with school groups and citizen scientists to identify and categorize images. After collecting images for one month each season, the team identified 7,000 individual animals and 32 different species.

The project offers a glimpse into how wildlife can adapt to urban spaces, although Athens’ tree canopy and undeveloped areas make it possible for a variety of species to survive, said Lavendar Harris, an undergraduate student at the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources who conducted the study for her senior thesis project.

Harris graduated in December with a bachelor’s degree in wildlife sciences. 

“My objectives were to estimate the daily activity patterns in a small-size city and to assess how wildlife biodiversity may be related to habitat and socioeconomic conditions in Athens-Clarke County,” said Harris. “Some animals adapt well, like raccoons. Some animals do not—like black bears, which are more urban avoiders; some cannot handle the pressures urbanization brings.”

Lavendar Harris checks a wildlife camera in 2022.
Lavendar Harris checks a trail camera in Oconee Forest Park. Brett Szczepanski/UGA

Harris began the project in spring 2021 under the direction of assistant professor Michel Kohl when Kohl connected with the Urban Wildlife Information Network. The organization includes 48 cities primarily located throughout North America, but recently expanded to include Germany and South Africa. All cities follow specific protocols for locating and monitoring wildlife cameras across urban spaces. 

Harris said she was curious to understand how a city’s development patterns affect wildlife. The amount of greenspace can vary in a densely populated city, and often this is tied to socioeconomic factors such as median income. Wealthier neighborhoods might have larger yards or a network of parks, while lower-income neighborhoods may have fewer trees or a more fragmented network of undeveloped spaces. Also, recent research has found changes in animal behavior in urban areas, such as carnivores pushed into smaller areas or predators becoming more nocturnal. 

“But all of this research has one commonality: almost all urban wildlife studies were performed in really large cities,” said Harris. As she began analyzing species in Athens, she realized the methods for measuring wildlife behaviors in dense urban areas weren’t capturing what was happening in Athens. 

“There is a research gap in that we don’t have a clear understanding of how all this works in a mid-size city like Athens, Georgia,” she said. “There’s a lot of greenspace within these different pockets of urbanization. While in Atlanta, there are massive urban pockets and not a lot of greenspace.”

She did notice some common threads connecting to other research, such as the effects of human density and impervious surfaces. But in some cases, areas with high tree canopy cover or undeveloped areas showed less species diversity. “We suspect there might be a disconnect between the scale of our tree measurement and the scale that wildlife diversity is responding to,” she said, referring to the models created for calculating species diversity in urban areas. “This also ties into to all our socioeconomic research. If future studies come up in these small-size cities, they may have to change the scales that they monitor at depending on how much greenspace and that greenspace is distributed in that city.”

That’s where the team’s future work is headed. Kohl said he plans to continue the project with data from similar-sized southern cities, Little Rock, Arkansas and Jackson, Mississippi. Because those cities are also part of the Urban Wildlife Information Network, they will have similarly collected data that can be compared. They also share the same common wildlife species as Athens.

While Harris gained experience in layering spatial data and modeling using data visualization software, she said one of her favorite parts of the project was simply looking at the photos of the animals. She began to look forward to analyzing images from certain sites—for example, the UGA Dairy Farm on the eastern edge of the county—knowing that they would have a larger mix of wildlife.

“When I was going through the photos, I could see a pattern of different species occurring at different sites,” she said. “The more into Athens we got, like in Dudley Park near downtown, I started seeing less coyotes and bobcats and more of the smaller species, like opossums and raccoons. But as we started getting more rural, like at the dairy farm, I started seeing bobcats and coyotes.”

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