Camera Traps are Pretty Cool…
Studying animals in the wild can be incredibly difficult. In Serengeti, for example, many of the animals we might want to know more about are really shy (like leopards), or aggressive (like buffalo and elephants) — and it’s hard to get close to them to study their behavior. Furthermore, a lot of the wildlife we study is nocturnal – meaning the animals are active at night, in the dark, when it’s virtually impossible to watch them in any meaningful way.
Enter camera traps to save the day. If you’re a researcher, a hunter, or a wildlife enthusiast, you’ve probably heard about camera traps. These are remotely triggered cameras that are transforming the way people study wildlife. Instead of taking pictures of the animals, the animals take pictures of themselves!
You might be surprised to discover that camera traps have been around for a long time. A really long time. In the 1890’s, a fellow named George Shiras developed a system so that wildlife triggered a trip wire, which triggered a flash and the camera shutter – producing the first wildlife “self portraits.” He was pretty creative in inducing the animals to trip the wire – for example, to photograph beavers he would tie the trip wire to a dislodged stick in the beaver’s dam. When the beaver went to repair the dam, it triggered the camera!
Modern technology is making camera traps better and more affordable. Cameras today are triggered by a combination of heat and motion – so the animals trigger the cameras merely by walking in front of them. In recent years, the use of camera traps in research has skyrocketed; they are now widely used to identify the presence of rare, endangered, or even presumed-extinct species; they’re used to estimate species densities, patterns of habitat use, predation, and even the relationships between competing species. Sometimes, the animals caught in cameras have unique markings that allow researchers to identify different individuals – for example, tigers have unique stripes, and leopards and cheetahs have unique spots. But even for animals where this isn’t the case, statisticians are hard at work developing methods capable of dealing with the data that camera traps are pulling in.
All of this means that we can ask really cool questions about a variety of species – but it also means you don’t need to be a scientist – or a statistician – to use camera traps to understand the world around you. Ever wondered what your backyard wildlife is doing at night? It’s never too late to find out!