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Sunday, June 4, 2023

Academics & Research

UH joins the Urban Wildlife Information Network

A bobcat treks in a Houston wildlife range. | Courtesy of Ann Cheek

Through the work of UH biology professor Ann Cheek, nearly 200 students and multiple Houston-area organizations, Houston achieved partner city status with the Urban Wildlife Information Network on June 17.

Although this status opens up new opportunities for UH students through the “Hidden Life of Houston” project, Cheek has already spent the past year and a half engaging them in on-site work to track wild animals, ranging from squirrels to coyotes in the Houston area.

“My goal is to engage a diverse group of students in conservation research and to introduce students to career opportunities in conservation,” Cheek said. “ The aim of the project is to build professional scientific skills, specifically experimental design, oral communication and teamwork.”

Three of Cheek’s undergraduate courses have been involved in the “Hidden Life of Houston” project over the past year. Ecology and Evolution Laboratory, Biological Field Research and Honors Introductory Biology students helped to set up cameras, identify animals seen in photos and experiment to see if bait would increase the number of wild animal sightings.

Students worked in teams to figure out how to distance roads of different sizes, level of urbanization, human activity, season and many other factors are associated with how often mammals are spotted and the diversity of species. Ecology and Evolution Laboratory students hosted a symposium to present their results to conservation and public health professionals.

Ultimately, their work may be able to help city planners and wildlife agencies to better decide how to conserve wildlife diversity and minimize human-wildlife conflict.

Though the trips were optional due to COVID-19, psychology and Spanish sophomore Briana Azad began accompanying Cheek on fieldwork to different camera locations in fall 2020 as part of the Honors Introductory Biology course.

“I thought it was a wonderful opportunity for me to get first-hand experience at what the biologists at UH are up to,” Azad said. “I’m so glad I did because Dr. Cheek inspired me to develop my own research question and study biodiversity in the greater Houston area through the Provost’s Undergraduate Research Scholarship.

Azad anticipates adding more camera locations to additional sites around Houston and believes Houston’s partner city status will push it towards greater national recognition for biodiversity levels since Houston overlaps many different ecosystems.

A collaborative process

Cheek first heard about UWIN through another biology professor at a professional conference on STEM teaching. She knew from experience during study abroad trips to the Galapagos that students tend to enjoy projects in which they can track wild animals that they identify through photos.

The road to becoming a partner city would take about 18 months for Houston, however, due to UWIN’s specific requirements concerning the survey line that interested cities have to set up. 

The UH Office of the Provost’s Multicultural Student Success Initiative provided funding to purchase cameras, SD cards and security boxes. Memorial Park Conservancy helped with contacting landowners to receive permission to set up cameras and with the actual setup process.

About 180 UH undergraduates, Memorial Park, Houston Arboretum, UH Main Campus, UH Coastal Center, Houston Parks and Recreation, Harris County Precinct 1, Pearland Parks, League City Parks and several cemeteries and golf courses were also involved.

The process culminated with permission obtained for the 25th site along the survey line last week. The official Houston UWIN group is composed of UH and Memorial Park Conservancy.

From now on students and faculty can request permission to use data from other UWIN cities to help with regional or continent-wide wildlife research, Cheek said.

UH students can look forward to hearing more about undergraduate or graduate student positions at other UWIN partners.

For her part, Cheek hopes to continue guiding her students in exploring factors that affect Houston’s wildlife diversity along the existing survey line, as well as along a new line to be set up between UH and northeast Houston.

“I saw the UWIN research project as a way to engage many more students in a large-scale project that allows students to generate and answer their own locally relevant questions and contribute to continent-scale understanding of urban wildlife distribution,” Cheek said.

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