RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now, before we get to this next story, a fair warning: The topic is a little unsettling. But we hope it might make your commute a little more interesting - because we've all seen it; some unlucky animal that didn't quite make it across the highway. We call it roadkill. But one wildlife ecologist says that these animal accidents can actually teach us a lot. North Country Public Radio's Sarah Harris has the story.
SARAH HARRIS, BYLINE: Admittedly, this is a weird sight: two women standing by the side of the road, smartphones out, peering down at a dead, bloody and smelly skunk.
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HARRIS: Oh, wow. You can really smell it.
DANIELLE GARNEAU: So this guy must've gotten hit; and flipped over onto the edge, here. Our first step is to pull up EpiCollect, and then we'll go to the "new entry" option. And the first thing I like to do is to tap, to use my current location. And you see - it pops up with the latitude/longitude, and you hit OK.
HARRIS: Danielle Garneau, a wildlife ecologist at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, takes a picture of the dead skunk. And then we input a lot of data: time of day, the road's speed limit, whether the carcass has been scavenged.
GARNEAU: Precipitation is multiple choice. I don't believe it rained here yesterday, so I'm going to say none. In terms of temperature, we'll get that when we get back in the car; it's on my dash. State is New York.
HARRIS: When we finish, all this data gets sent to the project server. And the roadkill appears as a red pushpin on a digital map. The program Garneau's using is called EpiCollect. It's free, and anybody with a smartphone can use it. Roadkill may not be glamorous, but Garneau says these dead critters carry valuable information.
GARNEAU: We're looking, at a fine scale, at patterns of animal movement. Maybe we can pick up migratory patterns. Maybe we can see a phenology change. And also, you know, 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 that can make changes.
HARRIS: Over the course of the afternoon, we log a lot of dead animals. We see a red squirrel with a deep gash across its back. We see an almost unrecognizable raccoon.
GARNEAU: Oh, man. This is just - like a pancake.
HARRIS: Some of it's fresh, and some of it's been pretty picked over.
GARNEAU: Scavenged, pulled apart, rained on, frozen.
HARRIS: It's hard not to get a little philosophical about all the dead animals.
GARNEAU: We're embedded in their world, and they're embedded in our world; and the boundaries are kind of blurry.
HARRIS: By the end of the afternoon, my eyes feel sharper - and I'm noticing wildlife. People talk a lot about technology cutting us off from nature. But tracking roadkill is really the opposite. You engage with the world around you - even if it is a smelly skunk by the side of the road.
For NPR News, I'm Sarah Harris.
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MARTIN: This is NPR News.
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