Under the Lens: Mason Fidino

"I realized that my passion was really with wildlife"

"I realized that my passion was really with wildlife"


I’ve known Mason Fidino since before either of us was a student at UIC. His boss was on my master’s committee at DePaul, and he sent me to Mason for help with a project that I didn’t end up completing in my time there. But, it was a valuable introduction.

Mason is in his fourth year in Dr. Joel Brown’s lab, but his graduate school trajectory and experiences are a little different than those of many of us. Mason works primarily at the Urban Wildlife Institute at Lincoln Park Zoo, where he is an ecological analyst and one of their go-to stats guys. He only comes to campus once a week or so, so I felt that broadcasting his story would give Science Café readers some interesting insight into the diversity of scientists in our department.

Tell me about your research

I am a wildlife guy. My research focuses on understanding how species are distributed in space and time. I use an assortment of field methods, advanced statistical modeling, and methods like camera traps and passive acoustic sensors to collect data on urban species and understand how they use habitat.

I’m familiar with passive methods like camera trapping, but can you elaborate on those for those who might not be?

Sure. The camera traps we use are set up in cemeteries, city parks, forest preserves, and golf courses four times a year at over 100 sites across Chicagoland. The cameras are small and discreet and get attached to a tree. When wildlife--or even, sometimes, people--trigger the motion sensor, they snap a photo. We return every two weeks or so to change the batteries and collect the memory cards. It generates a lot of photos, most of which are garbage, but we also get some really cool stuff.

And what about the acoustic sensors?

We’re using passive acoustic sensors to study the bats. They’re small and get affixed to trees and they take sound recordings that we can then run through a system that will detect which kinds of bats we’re hearing. Like birds, bat species all have a unique call, and even though we can’t hear it, the recorders can analyze it. It’s not perfect, but my colleague Liza Lehrer is finding about seven species of bats around Chicago. What’s frustrating about that is that we’re not able to pick up the little brown bat, which is what everyone’s concerned about with white-nose syndrome. Its call is very similar to another species, and the computer can’t tell them apart, so if we get that [recording] we don’t know if it’s the little brown bat or some other guy.

Can you tell me a little bit more about some of the statistical models you use and why?

 Theory is most helpful when we can actually apply it to empirical data, but we don’t always have the statistical models to do that. What’s more, estimating where species are located through space and time means correctly partitioning variability between the underlying ecological and observational processes. In other words, we don’t sample things perfectly and we need statistical tools to account for this.  We could also use those tools to answer a variety of applied questions. For example, it would be good to know how wildlife responds to changes in the urban environment and different management actions. [For example] if we double the amount of green space in Chicago, will we get deer downtown? Are we actually providing habitat with proposed changes or projects? I use advanced statistical methods like Bayesian hierarchical models to back up some of those claims.

Can you elaborate on just one of the theories?

Sure, mesopredator release theory of Kevin Crooks and Michael Soulé in Nature [in 1999] states that as we remove the apex predators from a system--the wolves, the mountain lions, whatever--we reduce the pressures from competition and predation on the mid-sized predators like coyotes. When those populations increase, populations of smaller omnivores—raccoons and opossum—decline and bird populations go up because of a reduction of nest predation. Well, based on some of our data, we find that this isn’t the case. There was really no bearing on raccoon and opossum when coyotes were around. This might be because Crooks’ methods and models weren’t specific enough to detect raccoons or opossum, but the point is that we need better tools to identify and predict these co-occurrence scenarios.

 So, are you going to publish your refutation of Crooks’ theory in Nature?

No, it’s actually going to American Naturalist and it’s more about the method I came up with to estimate patterns of co-occurrence in multi-species models that also accounts for their probability of detection.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions that people have about urban wildlife?

We frequently get calls at the zoo from people saying “I saw a coyote in my neighborhood, what should I do about it??” and it’s always frustrating, because the answer to that question is “nothing”. If it’s not bothering you, you should just be happy to have had that experience with wildlife. People don’t think about coyotes as being highly urban. People like birds, but frequently they’re put off by large or mid-sized predators, and they fail to realize that coyotes exist here, typically in peace. We have coyotes along all of our transects, essentially from downtown radiating out in three directions. We have found that they’re more likely to be found in affluent areas. This isn’t to say that coyotes have affluent taste, but there may be some landscape or social correlates such as larger yards or eco-friendly behaviors that might make those neighborhoods better habitat.

What’s the coolest moment you’ve experienced in the field?

I was walking along the Nature Boardwalk [at Lincoln Park Zoo] one afternoon and I spotted a coyote, not even 20 feet from me. He was hunkered down for the day, and people were out there with their dogs and their coffees. He was totally aware that I was there and saw him, but he wasn’t going to come out during the day. But the people didn’t even realize that they were in such close proximity to a coyote. It was neat.

What is your advice for new grad students?

Take the time to better understand probability and probability distributions . This will make the hypotheses you create even more interesting and testable. Don’t worry too much about things like doing linear regressions by hand or understanding Hessian matrices, those things are great, but knowing what to do with your data and better understanding what regression coefficients mean is critical. Making sure you have a strong grasp on the fundamentals of probability will really help you identify questions and figure out how to actually test them.

How’d you get into this field?

Well, my dad told me “Mason, you should major in environmental science”. He thought it would be the next big thing and that I’d always be able to find a job and that it would pay well. So I majored in that in college, but took a field methods course in ornithology and realized I had a knack for identifying birds by sight and sound. It was then that I realized that my passion was really with wildlife.

I started at the Urban Wildlife Institute as an intern, and then worked as an intern coordinator. I got to be involved in some really awesome projects, monitoring the black crowned night herons (a state endangered species) that nest in—actually over—the zoo. I also worked on a turtle project. It was great, and I realized I really loved research. Some of my colleagues at the zoo went to grad school at UIC, so it seemed like a really good fit.

Aside from birding, what are your hobbies?

Woodworking. My dad was a woodworker and I was always the shop kid. I hated it then, but eventually I realized that they were actually pretty cool skills to have. I recently built a table and a cabinet for our downstairs bathroom using traditional joinery. It’s really just like adult Legos.

What areas of the city would you recommend for outdoor exposure?

Palmisano Park in Bridgeport. It’s incredible. It has this old quarry in the middle of it, where you go down and you can’t see or hear the city at all. It’s got native vegetation planted there and the diversity is just amazing. It’s on South Halstead.

Also, and I’m probably a bit biased, but the Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo. They put it in seven years ago and they’ve done a lot of native plantings. There are over 200 species of birds, and we’ve found eight species of turtles. It’s a special place.

Anything else you’d like to add?

There is one shameless plug I have to make. The Urban Wildlife Institute has been doing the camera trap project for six years now and when you’re working with camera traps you end up with so many photos that the volume kind of outpaces our ability to process them. We have this really neat website chicagowildlifewatch.org where we post pictures that people can help identify online. So instead of spending your time looking at animal pictures, you can do the same thing and also help us identify some of these species. One of us is usually online, responding to questions and interacting with the public.