If you study urban wildlife and you want to gather information, don't forget the power of social media. That's what Marcus Mueller and Dr. David Drake have done in Madison, Wisconsin, to support their study of urban foxes and coyotes.

When I talked with Mueller back in February as the UW Urban Canid Project got rolling, he was excited about how much interest the project's Facebook page was garnering. Then he figured out how to turn that interest into a tool for his research.

The team wants to know how foxes and coyotes use the urban landscape of Madison, and specifically how these two species, which are usually enemies, divvy up the city to coexist. The researchers began their study by asking the city's residents to let them know if they had sighted coyotes or foxes in their yards recently, and if the team could get permission to set up traps and collar the animals for study. As residents learned about the project, they were willing to report sightings and much more.

"We hoped to get a better idea of where foxes and coyotes were spending their time by mapping out reported sightings by the public. After a call for sightings by a university publication, my adviser received almost 70 individual emails from Madison residents regarding foxes and coyotes. After the Facebook page was launched, sightings continued to come in, along with pictures and videos taken from citizens' backyards. These sightings directly led to the capture and collaring of several individuals."

With such success in reporting sightings, the team thought their Facebook followers might be up a new task: collecting poop.

The team uses scat to learn more about the diet and health of the canids. Collecting coyote scat is easy enough for the team as coyotes tend to spend most of their time in parks and preserves. But foxes, on the other hand, spend most of their time in private backyards and neighborhoods, and not so much in public spaces.

"We had the idea to request that members of the public who regularly see foxes in their yards collect any scat that the foxes leave behind. This question was posed on our Facebook page in early June, and I was very surprised by the response. At the end of the first day, we had around 20 individuals comment and eagerly request more information about how to help us out. After such a positive response, we moved quickly to provide information about identifying scat and properly collecting/storing it. It only took a few days to collect our first scat sample. We have been successfully collecting samples ever since and hope to continue collecting to get a better picture of seasonal changes in diets."

Urban foxes often hang out in private backyards, so having residents willing to collect scat for the researchers was a significant help.Urban foxes often hang out in private backyards, so having residents willing to collect scat for the researchers was a significant benefit. (Photo: Lordbphotos/Shutterstock)

The "Scat Scavengers" have made the researchers' job easier and their efforts have helped to quickly fill in gaps in information. In fact, Mueller says the scat analysis portion of the study may not have happened at all if it not for the overwhelming assistance from the public. Research projects like this are always short on time and money, so this extra information coming in is all thanks to the assistance of social media followers willing to get involved. But there's also another important task that such involvement accomplishes: getting the public interested in the science of local wildlife.

"Incorporating the public has been one of the goals of the UW Urban Canid Project. Providing members of the public with first-hand experience in our research will hopefully go a long way to fostering an appreciation for urban canids and help to further our goal of creating a peaceful coexistence between humans and urban wildlife in this developed landscape."

The team is also using iNaturalist to keep reports organized. iNaturalist is an app citizens can use to report sightings, including detailed information and photographs. The reports are all filed under the specific project, and the app generates a map of sightings and stores the details of each report. This way, Mueller and Drake can look in one place for the reports, rather than spending hours sifting through a barrage of emails and phone calls. It's a powerful tool for researchers who do this kind of work.

Social media has become the new best friend of researchers who know how to utilize it.

"The number of people using social media for their daily information grows every year, and wildlife researchers and managers should take advantage of this to effectively reach stakeholders," said Mueller. "A successful social media campaign does take effort and planning. Identifying a target audience, choosing platforms based on that audience, and tailoring content to best reach them are all steps to using social media effectively. Ultimately, it is a tool I would recommend to any researcher exploring new ways to reach target stakeholders, especially in urban areas."

Jaymi Heimbuch ( @jaymiheimbuch ) focuses on wildlife conservation and animal news from her home base in San Francisco.

Will you please collect fox poop for this scientist?
Researchers in Wisconsin are using social media and community participation to study Madison's urban canids. And yes, that includes collecting scat for them.