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Why did the chicken cross the road?

Speed read
  • Road ecology is an emerging field of study.
  • Citizen science mobile phone app aids data collection.
  • Results include hotspot identification and sensitivity to habitat fragmentation. 

The Problem

Has this ever happened to you?

It’s time for a midnight snack. Stumbling out of bed, you migrate down the hall en route to your kitchen. As you cross your living room, you jump back in shock as a big truck barrels across the floor and out the back door. Are you dreaming?

Luckily none of us have a highway running through our homes, but for a lot of wildlife, habitat fragmentation is a deadly reality. Tracking the often fatal interactions between humans and wildlife is the domain of the new citizen science mobile phone app Projekt Roadkill.

<strong>Keep your eyes on the road.</strong> By reporting roadkills you can provide data for scientific analysis and help identify hotspots at which roadway accidents occur frequently. Download the <a href='https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/roadkill-spotteron/id1007563102' target='_blank'>iPhone app here.</a> Download the <a href='https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.spotteron.roadkill' target='_blank'>Android app here</a>. Courtesy Florian Heigl; Spotteron.

The Solution

“Our aim is to get an overview of number and distribution of animals killed on roads and to find the influencing factors,” says Florian Heigl, lead researcher for the project. Heigl, PhD candidate in ecology at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU), is one of many scientists responding to the emerging science of road ecology.

Since roads are an integral aspect of human civilization, and since roadway accidents can take both human and animal life, there is an increasing need to better understand the sites where human and wild societies intersect.

However, there are too many roads for any one scientist to cover, so Heigl opted for the power of citizen science. Enlisting the crowd has made it possible to investigate large areas and determine when, where, and on which type of street an animal is killed.

Powered by Spotteron, the app uses OpenStreetMap to allow users to mark spots where they observe vertebrate animals killed by vehicles. Focused in Austria, the project is collaborating with other roadkill projects in the European Union. 

Registered users upload photos and identification information via the smartphone app and into a database at BOKU in Vienna, Austria.

Living in harmony

The app provides researchers with invaluable data about habitat fragmentation. Roads literally divide habitats, and resident species must traverse these corridors searching for food and shelter. Roadkill is one of the main reasons for the decrease of populations of several animal groups, Heigl says.

But wildlife aren’t the only vertebrates at risk when roads encroach upon habitat — humans are also affected. Auto accidents with larger animals like deer can kill or cause great damage to drivers and property. Because of the tendency to avoid or brake when encountering an animal on the roadway, even small animals pose a threat to humans. What’s more, many people are stressed because of the ethical burden when killing an animal, regardless of the size.

<strong>Birds of a feather. </strong>Citizen scientists across Europe are teaming up to increase sensitivity to habitat fragmentation. Their efforts will make driving safer for humans and animals. Courtesy Horst Hellmeier.

Ultimately, Projekt Roadkill hopes to inform drivers about potential hotspots, and raise awareness about habitat fragmentation.

“We try not to raise false expectations,” Heigl is quick to caution. “Some of our participants enter data because they want to save animal lives, but that’s not what the project is mainly about. We would like to sensitize participants to roadkill and habitat fragmentation and would like to get information about this phenomena from the public.”

While the project will not eliminate roadkill any time soon, it is educating the public about the danger that human civilization brings to wildlife. So though the likelihood of a truck crossing your living room is slim, it is important to realize animals face this threat every day.

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