Zoo Researchers Get Endangered Species to "Say Cheese"

Jun 11, 2013

Remote Cameras Shed Light on Secret Lives of Animals

Remote camera traps are a bit like Candid Camera for endangered species, offering researchers a peek into the secret lives of animals facing environmental challenges. The cameras, which can be mounted anywhere – from the snowy Canadian Prairies to the shores of Antarctica – are perfect for capturing information on species that are secretive, rare or difficult to track.

While the work is critical to understanding species ecology, the cameras capture moments that are entertaining too, explains Tara Stephens, a researcher with the Calgary Zoo’s Centre for Conservation Research (CCR), who uses the cameras, in collaboration with Parks Canada, in the zoo’s research on the black-tailed prairie dog ecosystem in Saskatchewan’s Grasslands National Park.

Remote cameras are perfect for capturing information on species that are secretive, rare or difficult to track.

“Sometimes it feels like we’re spying. We have some hilarious pictures of prairie dogs and incredible photos of a badger exiting a prairie dog burrow with a prairie dog in its mouth. The cameras give us the opportunity to see what is happening on prairie dog colonies when we aren’t out in the field. We can see when they enter and emerge from hibernation, when the pups come out and what the weather conditions are like at different times of the year. It’s information that can fill in the blanks in our research or raise more questions for us to explore.”

The CCR also uses motion sensor cameras in its research on swift foxes and the zoo also supports other camera-trapping projects around the world including monitoring sitatunga and hippos in Ghana (in partnership with the CCR), mountain bongos in Kenya, king penguins in Antarctica and forest animals in Liberia.

Tara explains that the cameras can work in a few different ways. “Some are set to take photos at intervals and use little battery power, while others are set to be triggered by motion.” Regardless of how it is used, this technology is an important tool in the conservation researcher’s toolkit.

The black-footed ferret and black-tailed prairie dog component of the Husky Energy Endangered Species Program is also currently supported by the Canadian Wildlife Federation and WWF-Canada.

As published in the Spring 2013 issue of the Calgary Zoo’s Wild Life member magazine.