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Walking Club: Eckerd College professors and students study Fort De Soto wildlife after dark

Walking Club: Eckerd College professors & students study Fort De Soto animals after dark
Posted at 12:30 PM, Mar 09, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-11 07:28:25-05

Many of us are looking for ways to remain active while also staying a safe distance away from others. That's why Sarah Phinney started 'Sarah's Walking Club’ to highlight some hidden, and some not so hidden, trails and parks across Tampa Bay.

Two Eckerd College professors, along with some of their students, are finding out what the animals inside Fort De Soto are up to at night, thanks to a network of 20 wildlife cameras.

Tim Bransford, Eckerd College assistant professor of animal studies, wanted to study the park’s wildlife because of its unique ecosystem and the high number of human visitors.

The project started in the fall with 10 solar-powered, motion-activated cameras. It recently expanded to 20 cameras because of a grant from the Tampa Bay Estuary Program.

There are six cameras in areas open to the public, four are in recently restored areas and the rest are in more natural areas, like mangroves, salt marsh and dunes.

The infrared “camera traps” are only active from sunset to sunrise. A photo is captured and a 15-second video is recorded when motion is detected.

Students check the cameras every two to three weeks.

“We upload the data to a Google Drive, then the students go through and they analyze it,” said Beth Forys, Professor of Environmental Studies and Biology. “So we know what species were there, what time they were there, what habitat, all that information.”

Forys said the cameras have captured the activity of a variety of animals including a number of birds, raccoons, opossums, armadillos, otters and more.

“It’s amazing how you’ll see the animals together,” said Forys. “You’ll see an opossum walk by and then a raccoon walk by. They’re not interacting, but they don’t seem to be upset by each other either.”

There is no end date for the project. In fact, plans are in the works for the public to more easily see what has been captured. Forys said there will soon be QR codes on signs where cameras are accessible to the public.

“It’s gonna take them to a web page and on this web page will have photos of the animals we saw in that exact location,” said Forys.

She expects the signs to be out in a month or two.

Both Forys and Bransford say this project serves as an opportunity to educate the public.

“One of the important things we’re trying to communicate is that this space isn’t just a human space,” said Bransford. “Even though they get millions of visitors a year, this park is also home to a lot of animals and we coexist together.”

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