Jasmyn Hill had been attending the same charter school in Southeast Washington for five years before she ever ventured into the woods that surround the campus.
“I had no idea what was in there,” said the 16-year-old junior with long turquoise nails and waist-length braids. She described herself as “not really the type who goes camping.”
But the city kid joined a “Green Team” at her school, and she now spends afternoons taking walks in the woods to learn about what lives there. She also helps set up cameras to record the wildlife. The experience has kindled an interest in environmental science, she said.
Hill and other students at the SEED Public Charter School are joining a growing army of “citizen scientists” who are gathering data about wildlife for the Smithsonian collection, information and images that can be used for scientific research and conservation efforts.
It’s part of a Smithsonian eMammal project, which recruits and trains volunteers to set up infrared-activated cameras — or “camera traps” — in parks, back yards or other natural areas. The cameras take pictures when something warm-blooded moves in front of the lens.
Carnivores and wildlife are rebounding in many urban areas, and researchers have a lot of questions about what kind of animals are living where and how they interact with humans and with one another.
“We need the data from these urban sites, and these students are collecting it for us,” said Bill McShea, a research scientist at the National Zoo’s Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.
The photos represent a more modern way of gathering specimens, in part replacing the historical collection of skulls and animal skins that wildlife biologists took back to museums for tagging and storage. Now, cameras can capture similar information and, when carefully documented, the photos can become part of the Smithsonian collection.
The eMammal project began in 2012. In its first two years, volunteers and scientists placed more than 2,000 cameras in 32 parks across six mid-Atlantic states, collecting more than 200,000 animal detections. The program is expanding.
D.C. students are among the first to participate in the program as volunteers, and the city has proved to be a good place for them to learn about wildlife.
“People may not realize how much wild area or forest there is in D.C.,” McShea said. “You’d be surprised at what mammals are sitting in those woods.”
SEED is a public boarding school, an unusual model that aims to help students from poor communities by offering them concentrated services around the clock. Located not far from Minnesota Avenue SE, the gated campus is in an area that is considered urban but is surrounded by green space. Fort Dupont Park, which is maintained by the National Park Service, is steps away.
On a warm afternoon this spring, Hill and her friend Isaiah Thomas met up with the Green Team, an after-school club organized by a group called Groundwork Anacostia, which helped adapt the eMammal program for D.C. schools.
They were joined by wildlife biologist Megan Baker and other volunteers, setting off for a walk to check on cameras that have been in place for a few weeks.
The trail began as gravel, then went to dirt. They walked until the crunch of leaves and the din of bird song drowned out the traffic noise. New green leaves were visible in every direction.
Thomas used a GPS device to find the first camera trap, which took him off the trail and into a patch of trees. The students strained to find the camera, which was strapped to the base of a tree three weeks earlier and was purposely camouflaged. When they spotted it, they removed a padlock, retrieved the memory card and took the camera so they could move it to a new location.
While searching for the next camera, the GPS device took them into thick woods. They passed a fox den, made of sand, with three big holes. Some climbed over it, but Thomas stopped short. “I don’t want them coming to my house,” he said. “I’m not going to their house.”
They continued past thorny bushes, up and down hills. The group stopped again when they found a pair of antlers, left behind by a deer, white and pristine on the dried brown leaves. They posed for pictures and carried them on as a souvenir.
Back at school, they downloaded the pictures from the first camera onto a laptop and gathered around, excited to see what it had captured.
The series of pictures showed raccoons with bright eyes, the blur of a running deer, a black squirrel. “Wild turkeys!” they exclaimed, spotting a flock of three turkeys on the screen. “Where are the foxes?’ they wondered.
A second memory card, which had been retrieved earlier from a different camera, showed more deer, including one that lay down and took a two-hour nap in front of the camera. They saw a raccoon standing on two legs, a possum, a house cat, and, finally, a red fox.
Baker said some camera traps have ended up recording other types of wildlife: Occasionally people have mooned the lens. But usually, surprises come in the sheer variety of animals that wander by or what they do when they think no one is watching.
One series of pictures from a volunteer who set up a camera in a park in Centreville, Va., captured a fox playing with a ball. Some student volunteers from the British School of Washington who set up a camera trap in Rock Creek Park captured images of two battling deer.
The next step is to upload the images. The students use a software application that helps sort the pictures and identify the animals. Experts check the images, and then they go into the Smithsonian’s archive.
As part of the school program, seventh-grade students at SEED also will visit the camera traps and study the photographs as they learn about ecosystems and habitats and how to classify animals.
During their first lesson, science teacher Ibari Iheanyi-Igwe asked the students to make a hypothesis about the kinds of animals they might find in the woods next to their school.
“We got all kinds of answers — mountain lions, jaguars, kangaroos,” she said. “Now we will go out and investigate what’s really there.”