Behind the scenes feature with Dr. Stanley Gehrt, professor of wildlife ecology at The Ohio State University and Director of the Urban Coyote Research Project.
What does it take to capture an iconic wildlife image –appearing on covers of an iconic magazine with a worldwide readership and in circulation for over 130 years?
"It takes many things," according to Stanley D. Gehrt, professor of wildlife ecology at The Ohio State University and director of the Urban Coyote Research Project, the longest continuous coyote project on record.
Gehrt is referring to Coyote 1288, who is featured on the cover of National Geographic in three countries – Israel, Japan, and South Korea and appeared in the National Geographic article, “Wild animals are adapting to city life in surprisingly savvy ways (nationalgeographic.com).”
"To score an iconic wildlife image such as Coyote 1288 with Chicago’s Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower) looming in the background, it takes: expertise, hours of hard work, expensive equipment and, in this case, a large dose of luck," Gehrt said.
Capturing the iconic image
Photography, technology, and a little luck come together
In early 2020, Gehrt and the research team with the Urban Coyote Research Project began assisting accomplished photographer Corey Arnold (www.coreyfishes.com) to obtain images for a planned feature story on urban wildlife to appear in National Geographic magazine.
"The magazine wanted to include our research in the story and needed high quality images that are expected in a National Geographic story," Gehrt said.
For years, Gehrt and his team have used GPS technology to track coyotes in Chicago (learn more: Downtown Coyotes: Inside the Secret Lives of Chicago's Predator (nationalgeographic.com) to understand their behavior in urban environments.
"We started by using the GPS locations of select coyotes to guide Corey toward locations to set up his expensive camera sets."
"We were lucky that 1288, a young male originally captured, and radio collared in early February, just prior to Corey’s arrival, eventually settled at the perfect location at the perfect time," he said.
"Amazingly, after moving south, Coyote 1288 shifted his focus to the east, and made his way to downtown Chicago. During his 16-mile journey across the western suburbs, 1288 could have settled elsewhere, or been hit by a car or train during his travels – we were lucky!" Gehrt said.
During the first week of March 2020, 1288’s collar was still functioning, and he settled into what Gehrt described as "the perfect location."
What happened next
Soon after though 1288’s radio collar quit prematurely within a week or so after finding a partner and establishing a residence.
"If the radio had malfunctioned a week or so earlier, we would likely have never found him at the river," Gehrt said.
Since the team was able to localize 1288’s movements along the Chicago River, Gehrt and Arnold were able to quickly move to obtain an access point for a camera site and set up a very expensive camera and three automated strobe lights, all orientated to frame the skyscrapers – and with a bit of luck - hopefully a coyote in the foreground.
And a touch of perseverance
Almost immediately after finishing the setup, everything came to a halt with the COVID-19 shutdown.
"This camera setup was one of the last things we did before we all sequestered for the pandemic. Once the city shut down, including our research lab, we had to cease fieldwork and Corey had to return home," Gehrt said.
"Though the city was largely shut-down, the cameras kept monitoring and, we hoped, the coyotes kept doing their thing."
In late summer 2020, Arnold collected the photography equipment and inspected the memory card. The incredible image of 1288 was recorded July 9, 2020, almost exactly 4 months after the camera set up.
"We were lucky - if the COVID-19 shutdown had happened earlier, if the camera and lights had malfunctioned during that time, or been stolen, or if the coyote had continued his dispersal or died, no picture would have been possible," Gehrt said. "In fact, sadly 1288 was found dead and returned to us a month after the image was taken. In this case, many stars aligned to grace us with an amazing image of an amazing animal."
Stanley D. Gehrt