Wildlife ecologist Danielle Garneau is making a habit of tracking down road kill. She actually seeks it out, hunting for clues about larger ecological trends. Garneau records it all on a free smartphone app, EpiCollect.
Standing by the side of the road in upstate New York, phone in hand, Garneau peers down at a dead, bloody and smelly skunk.
She takes a picture of the carcass and opens the app to input data, including location, time of day, the road's speed limit and whether the carcass has been scavenged. The data gets sent to the project server, and the road kill appears as a red pushpin on a digital map.
Road kill may not be glamorous, but Garneau, who works at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, says these dead critters carry valuable information.
"We're looking at a fine scale at patterns of animal movement — maybe we can pick up migratory patterns, maybe we can see a phrenology change," she says. "And also, in the long term, if many of these animals are threatened or they're in a decline, the hope would be that we could share this information with people who could make changes."
Over the course of the afternoon, she logs a lot of dead animals: a rabbit whose tail is about 20 feet down the road, a red squirrel with a deep gash across its back and an almost unrecognizable raccoon.
Some of it's fresh, and some of it's been pretty picked over, either scavenged by other animals, rained on or frozen. It's hard not to get a little philosophical about all the dead animals.
"We're embedded in their world, and they're embedded in our world, and the boundaries are kinda blurry," Garneau says.
By the end of the afternoon, the wildlife seems more visible. Some argue that technology has a way of cutting people off from nature, but tracking road kill is really the opposite.
The project facilitates engagement with the natural world, even if that piece of nature is a smelly skunk decaying on the side of the road.