Edgartown School student John Chandler sat at a desk in his seventh-grade science class last week, hunched over a laptop, his eyes fixated on its screen. It displayed a slightly-blurry photo of the Old Westside Cemetery, the view half-obstructed by a fuzzy, cream-colored tail and two slender hind legs. “It’s definitely a dog’s tail,” said John, pointing to the image and tracing the animal’s shape.

John is one of dozens of students on the Island who participated in Snapshot USA, a nationwide survey of mammals using camera trap photos and artificial intelligence (AI).

Working with wildlife biologists at BiodiversityWorks, seventh and eighth graders in Edgartown, Oak Bluffs and West Tisbury spent this month reviewing images of mammals — both wild and domestic — from camouflage cameras placed around the Vineyard. With the help of an AI software called Wildlife Insights, the students identified the species in each photo and submitted them to a public U.S. database to be used for research.

“We have tens of thousands of photos,” said Liz Olson, BiodiversityWorks assistant director. “So it’s tedious. But the really cool thing is that [Wildlife Insights] can mostly categorize everything to help us sort through it all... and then scientists and researchers across the country have access to all of this information.”

Liz Olson, assistant director of BioDiversityWorks, speaks to the students. — Jonathan Fleischmann

Accompanied by Ms. Olson and BiodiversityWorks wildlife technician Silas Beers, students ventured out in September to green spaces around their schools to install the cameras, careful to place them in inconspicuous locations just a few feet above the ground. Over the following two months, the cameras, triggered by motion, collectively snapped more than 60,000 photos of the Island’s mammalian residents, including white-tailed deer, eastern cottontail rabbits, striped skunks, eastern gray squirrels and even humans and their canine companions.

Human faces captured in photos are automatically blurred when uploaded to Wildlife Insights, said Ms. Olson.

“But we still document that we see people,” she said. “We’re mammals, too.”

BiodiversityWorks first enrolled in Snapshot USA and began working with Island schools in 2021. At the time, the AI software was brand new and often labeled species inaccurately. Students spent hours sifting through the photos, correcting the mammals’ names and training the program to recognize the Island’s wildlife better.

“One of the funny ones was this huge fat skunk, and the AI called it a wild boar,” said Ms. Olson. “We obviously don’t have those. So it would give an identification but then we would have to go back and really check it.”

Justen Foster, Edgartown School seventh grade science teacher. — Jonathan Fleischmann

Now, after three years of fine tuning, AI is a bit more reliable. Still, it is important not to rely too heavily on the technology, said Justen Foster, a seventh-grade science teacher at the Edgartown School. The detailed process helps her students get to know the various species they share their home with.

“Getting to help install the cameras is a great way for us to start our overall ecology unit in class,” said Ms. Foster. “We get outside and they get to see the science in action and not just have to memorize stuff. This is really the way that scientists collect data and they get to be a part of that process.”

Finding the animals in each photo can be a tricky game, too, she added. In pictures of dense forest or thick grasslands, a critter can be camouflaged and easily missed by impatient eyes. For photos taken at night, students have to look carefully for flash reflected in animals’ eyes.

“Sometimes the kids will find photos of their friends, and that gets them really excited,” said Mr. Beers.

Ms. Olson and Mr. Beers recently completed this round of visits to the Island schools for the year, but will return next fall to introduce a brand new cohort of students to their fellow Island mammals.

“Other than us and the kids, nobody’s really studying the mammal population on the Vineyard,” said Ms. Olson. “So with this project, over the years we can start to see how our populations are shifting and how the environment may be changing. It’s all so we can get to know our Island and its creatures a little bit better.”