Ever wonder what Amazon animals do when nobody’s looking?
To find the answer to that question, we’ve decided to install camera traps on the ground and up in the canopy walkway at ACTSPeru – one of our favorite Amazon study sites for teachers and students. With the help of teachers and students from Asheville School, Millbrook School, and The Taft School we launched the project during a field course for independent school educators in March of 2018. The camera traps will stay in place until we return again in July. Hopefully we will capture more than a few animals doing what they do when nobody is there to watch!
So what are camera traps and why are they important?
Camera traps are really awesome little gadgets that use sensors and cameras to ‘capture’ animals as they move about the environment. Most camera traps today are equipped to shoot photos and video – day and night – 24/7. They are unubtrusive and for the most part, the animals being ‘trapped’ don’t even know they are being caught on film.
Camera traps are also quickly becoming an important global wildlife conservation tool. They are being used around the world to help researchers document little known species, monitor populations, record new behaviors, and even discover new species.[i]
How do they work?
Camera traps use passive infrared (PIR) sensors which detect differences in surface temperature to trigger a camera. In other words, a PIR sensor will snap a photo or take a video when a warm animal walks through a cooler background environment, or when a cooler animal walks through a warmer background.[ii].
Fig. 1 below from the WWF Conservation Camera-Trapping Guide[iii] is what a PIR ‘sees’ when it sends a trigger to the camera to snap a standard photo or take a video. Images are stored as files on HD cards until they can be retrieved by the researcher or transmitted wirelessly.
What is the right camera for the job?
Camera trap technology is rapidly improving, and researchers have lots of options, depending on their research interest, study site conditions, and budget. Camera traps can cost anywhere from $50 to well over $1000. They can be solar powered or battery operated and the newest versions can even connect to cellular networks for real time data uploads. The trick is finding the right one for your project.
Just because they are cool gizmos, doesn’t mean they are right for every research project in every location. For example, camera traps are great for identifying animals by species and sometimes even by individuals, but they can’t capture other biometric or genetic data that may be of interest. Furthermore, even though camera traps are ‘non-intrusive’ and do a great job of minimizing disturbance for behavioral studies, the sounds they make can often be heard by wildlife.[iv] Understanding their pros and cons is crucial in deciding if camera traps are the right tool for your conservation project or research question. More than likely the camera trap will be just one of many tools in your research toolkit.
Ask an expert!
We talked to our friend, Dr. Mark Bowler, who is an Amazon rainforest camera trap expert to find out what model he prefers for Amazon conditions. Mark has put camera traps in the Amazon canopy and on the ground in many locations in Peru. He is currently a fan of the Bushnell Aggressor camera trap. It holds up well in the humidity, is on the inexpensive side, and takes good quailty video and photos. We figured if this model works for an Amazon camera trap expert, they’ll work just fine for us!
Camera Traps and Conservation
For the last several years, Mark has been studying the recovery of large game animals in the newly formed Maijuna-Kichwa Regional Conservation Area (MKRCA). Nearly a million acres of Amazon rainforest is now under indigenous Maijuna managment. The loggers have been kicked out and Mark is using camera traps to help the Maijuna monitor and manage the recovery of large mammals such as tapir, peccary, and woolley monkeys.[v] He set up a very large grid with 60 camera traps on the ground and 42 in the trees in an area that had been decimated by illegal logging and hunting…and waited.
What he found 6 months later when he pulled the HD cards from the camera traps shocked and excited us all. The cards were full of images of wildlife that was thought to be long gone from this part of the MKRCA. The data collected from the aboreal camera traps captured saki monkeys, woolley monkeys, more.
Bowler, M. (2014)
The camera traps on the ground caught peccaries, giant anteaters and even a short-eared dog. As excited as everyone one was to see these animals, this is much more than a ‘feel good’ moment. The data being captured by the camera traps will be used to support wildlife management plans and provide on-going proof to the Peruvian authorities that the MKRCA was worth saving.
Mark’s latest project in the MKRCA involves placing camera traps at mineral licks. Mineral licks provide essential nutrients for large and small mammals, many of which are prized game meat for the Maijuna. The mineral lick camera trap project will help provide valuable data that will inform sustainable hunting and game management plans for the Maijuna. Check out this video of Mark placing camera traps at a minernal lick in the MKRCA as part of an undergraduate course he is teaching for The School for Field Studies.
Bowler, M. (2018)
What does The Morpho Institute hope to accomplish with our camera traps?
The MKRCA is adjacent to ACTSPeru, one of our primary study sites that includes a 1/4 mile long canopy walkway. The view from the top of the tallest walkway platform looks out over the MKRCA. For a long time, we worried that the entire area was becoming a ‘ghost’ forest and that all the large animal biodiversity was gone. With the exciting results coming out of the MKRCA, we want to start monitoring the area around the ACTSPeru field station and canopy walkway.
We plan to enlist the student and educator groups that we work with as citizen scientists to help us identify the wildlife we capture with our brand new Bushnell Agressor Camera Traps! We will pilot this project over the next 6 months. In March of 2018 we enlisted the help of 14 HS educators and students from Asheville school, Taft School, and Millbrook School to identify site locations for our camera traps. We placed two camera traps as pilots using the same basic protocol and camera trap model used by Mark. And now we will wait… In July of 2019, we will return for our annual Educator Academy in the Amazon and hike out to the camera traps to pull the HD cards and learn what we’ve caught on camera!
Dillabaugh, C. (2017)
We hope to have some exciting images and video to share with the 30 elementary and HS educators who are joining us in the field. If all goes well, we will launch a full blown citizen science project on zooniverse that will incorporate additoinal camera traps at ACTSPeru and the camera traps placed in the MKRCA by Mark Bowler!
[i] Hance, J. (2011, December 5). Camera Traps Emerge as Key Tool in Wildlife Research. YaleEnvironment360. Retrieved from http://e360.yale.edu/features/camera_traps_emerge_as_key_tool_in_wildlife_research
[ii] ZSL (2016, November 10). Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation: Passive infrared triggered camera traps: Detecting wildlife, but not as you know it. Zoological Society of London. Retrieved from https://www.zsl.org/blogs/remote-sensing-in-ecology-and-conservation/passive-infrared-triggered-camera-traps-detecting
[iii] Wearn, O. & Glover-Kapfer, P., (2017). WWF Conservation Technology Series 1(1). WWF-UK, Woking, United Kingdom. Retrieved from https://www.wwf.org.uk/conservationtechnology/documents/CameraTraps-WWF-guidelines.pdf
[iv] Caravaggi, A., Banks, P. B., Burton, C. A., Finlay, C., Haswell, P. M., Hayward, M. W., … & Wood, M. D. (2017). A review of camera trapping for conservation behaviour research. Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation.
[v] Bowler, M. T., Tobler, M. W., Endress, B. A., Gilmore, M. P., & Anderson, M. J. (2017). Estimating mammalian species richness and occupancy in tropical forest canopies with arboreal camera traps. Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation, 3(3), 146-157.
Bowler, M. [Mark Bowler]. (2018, February 10). Camera trapping the mineral licks with The School for Field Studies. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/dmNzqPQsySI
Bowler, M. [Mark Bowler]. (2014, August 24). Amazon camera trap field guide – woolly monkey. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/9k53qepxNpw
Bowler, Mark. (subject). (n.d.). Dr. Mark Bowler: Amazon Camera Trap Expert. Provided by subject.
Dillabaugh, Christa (photographer). (July 2017). Camera trap in the Amazon. Provided by photographer.
Dillabaugh, Christa (photographer). (July 2017). Camera trap parts. Provided by photographer.
Kahler, Phil. (photographer). (July, 2015). Tapir at Night. Provided by author.