Yellowstone National Park 'Crowdsources' Visitor Photos To Help Study Wolf Disease, Dynamics

A researcher with the Yellowstone Wolf Project is raising money for a website that will collect and archive visitor photos to help track mange, an infectious disease that causes skin lesions and fur loss. NPS photo by Ryan Kindermann.

Editor's note: Ruffin Prevost, long a reporter who covered Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks for newspapers, now oversees a blog dedicated to those parks: Yellowstone Gate. From time to time we'll share his stories with Traveler's readers, and we invite you to check out Yellowstone Gate.

The next time you visit Yellowstone National Park and manage to snap a great wolf photo, you could also be helping researchers as they monitor everything from infectious diseases to breeding habits among the elusive animals.

A Penn State University graduate student working on the Yellowstone Wolf Project has launched an Internet campaign to raise funds for a website that will let visitors upload wolf photos along with location information and other data. The goal is to track the spread and progress of sarcoptic mange among individual wolves and packs.

But the effort could also prove helpful to other areas of wolf research. Yellowstone wolf studies have long relied on field photos and images taken from research aircraft as important data sources, but scientists also sometimes use visitor photos to help answer questions about specific wolves.

“We’ve found that the visitor photos have been incredibly helpful, and rather than searching for all of those on our own time, this would allow us to find and use them in a more organized way,” said Emily Almberg, who set up a Kickstarter campaign to raise $7,000 for a website that will solicit, organize and archive wolf photos.

The citizen science project will let visitors upload wolf photos, along with additional information such as where and when the picture was taken, what pack the wolf might belong to and any identifying marks, traits or other unique characteristics.

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A wolf pup from the now-defunct Gardner Hole pack in Yellowstone National Park suffers from mange, a condition where mites cause excessive scratching resulting in fur loss. NPS photo.

Almberg has been working on the Yellowstone Wolf Project since 2003, and is hoping to use the photos to learn more about how mange is affecting Yellowstone’s wolves by recording fur loss and skin lesions as shown in the images. Mange is caused when mites burrow into the skin of fur-bearing animals. In wolves, a reaction to the mites causes scratching which results in fur loss. Severe fur loss can leave wolves at risk of death from exposure to the cold.

A handful of researchers with the Yellowstone Wolf Project try to photograph or observe each of the park’s wolves on a monthly basis, especially those collared for research purposes, Almberg said.

But there are more than 3 million annual visitors to the park, and most of them are carrying cameras and looking for wolves. Many of the most active wolf-watchers know individual animals by sight, and often use high-end cameras with powerful lenses, Almberg said, so it makes sense to leverage their efforts in gathering data.

“There’s a community of people that spend anywhere from several days to months each year observing uncollared animals that the Wolf Project traditionally hasn’t tracked,” she said. “Those folks have a tremendous wealth of information that could be very helpful for research purposes.”

Photos gathered by the site could help in other areas of wolf research, ranging from tracking pack movements to sorting out relationship questions about specific breeding pairs, Almberg said. Other online citizen science projects use similar crowdsourcing methods for everything from counting migrating birds to compiling historical weather records from archived ship logs. While some park visitors will have only a vague idea of a photo’s location, some pro cameras can record GPS data with each shot.

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A collared female wolf from the former Leopold pack in Yellowstone National Park exhibits signs of a severe mange infection. Researchers are seeking visitor photos showing wolves with mange. NPS photo.

Almberg said the website will allow for public review and comments for each photo, leveraging the collective wisdom of the crowd to help verify data. Researchers will cross-reference images with their own data as part of verification, and exclude from final data sets any photos they aren’t confident about.

Pro photographers leery of sharing a prized image can upload a low-resolution version or have the photo blocked from public view. Almberg said the website will be managed through Penn State, but that data will be shared with Wolf Project researchers and the public.

The campaign has already received more than $5,000 in pledges, and runs through April 16. Almberg said a pilot website could be online sometime in May.