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You’ve probably heard about Pokémon Go, the recent craze that has captured America and the world. After stealing the hearts of children over a decade ago, Pokémon are back — this time in our smartphones. People of all ages are tracking rare Pokémon, trying to “catch ’em all”. But what about interaction with the world that exists outside of our phones?

Community members spot tracks at CDR’s
first official science survey on August 6th.
Photo credit: Caitlin Potter

At Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve (CDR), in East Bethel MN, community members have graduated beyond virtual quarry. There, they track living animals across the reserve. CDR’s new wildlife tracking citizen science program, the Cedar Creek Wildlife Survey, taps the same vein of enthusiasm as chasing Pokemon. It and other similar programs are making use of people’s passion for tracking and adventure and applying it to local data collection and exploration.

Not unlike the pursuit to become a “Pokémon master”, community members are joining the quest to identify animal tracks and signs as part of the CDR citizen science project. A trained eye can quickly learn to recognize and identify common tracks including deer, turkey, raccoon, sandhill crane, beetle, and coyote, opening the door to uncover rarer species like black bear, otter, owl, bobcat, or even cougar. Much like stumbling upon a Charizard (so scarce, it is categorized as legendary in the Pokémon Go world), locating these rare wildlife tracks is thrilling — and also contributes to the CDR’s 74 year cache of long-term research and data. Since 61 of the 77 mammal species present in Minnesota have been spotted on the 5600 acre reserve at some point, CDR’s many miles of sand roads present a perfect opportunity for tracking, learning more about local wildlife, and attempting to catch (or at least document) ‘em all!

Poké​mon Go passion connects people with nature through LTER

SBC’s research buoy after it was recovered.
Photo credit: @SBKelpWatch Twitter

As Pokémania spread, it didn’t take long for LTER sites across the nation to feel the impact. The Santa Barbara Coastal Site (SBC) had one of their kelp trackers taken by two college students who swam out to catch what they perceived to be a real-life pokéball. In their defense, it did bear a striking resemblance! The device was safely returned, and SBC kindly asked the community to refrain from “catching ’em all” when it came to their data collectors.

However, most Pokémon traffic has been positive. LTER sites have been noticing an uptick in visitors, especially in first-time visitors that don’t regularly frequent natural areas. Some sites, like Konza Prairie, have multiple pokestops and even a gym (locations where you can pick up crucial items for the game and battle your Pokémon) on its trails. People are drawn in for the game but stay for the beauty. By exposing more people to the wonders of the nature in their community and ongoing research, Pokémon has provided an unexpected marketing service for LTER sites!

Citizen Science: good for scientists, good for the community

Engaging the community in data collection is hardly a new idea. Citizen science has long been used to collect reliable data and information for scientists, policymakers, and the public. However, the Cedar Creek Wildlife Survey is a new addition to the Cedar Creek LTER site. Created in partnership with Jonathan Poppele and the MN Wildlife Tracking Project, the program engages community members with local wildlife, while they, in turn, help researchers collect valuable data. Scientists rely on this kind of observational data to answer important questions about wildlife abundance, diversity, behavior and habitat use on the Cedar Creek property, but with a very small staff, data collection is often limited. Imagine the amount of data collected by just a few scientists amplified by the help of the community. As more and more citizen scientists are trained and collect data across the reserve, program coordinators anticipate that their efforts may double, triple, or even quadruple the total amount of data collected.

Volunteers successfuly identify a
mourning dove track.
Photo credit: Caitlin Potter

CDR’s ambitions for the project don’t stop with simple pen and paper observations. Smartphones can be used not only to track Pokémon, but also to upload, view and comment on observations on citizen science platforms like iNaturalist. Cell phones can even be used to remotely track wildlife through telemetry – another aspect of wildlife biology that has a link to the Cedar Creek LTER site. Did you know that the first automated radio telemetry system for tracking animals was developed at Cedar Creek and is now used worldwide to study animal movement and behavior? Radio collars on animals communicate with cell phone towers to pinpoint wildlife through GPS, and then alert biolgists of their local via SMS messaging. This technology allows scientists – and possibly even the public – to more easily follow wildlife through space and time and understand their habits.

Who knows – with citizen science programs continuing to gain traction in both the scientific and public spheres, perhaps one day they will be even more popular than Pokémon Go. So get out there and see what you can find – virtual and living creatures alike!


Interested in getting involved with the Cedar Creek Wildlife Survey or learning more about Cedar Creek? Contact Caitlin Potter at  

Or, get involved with other citizen science programs across the LTER network: