Camera Traps for Citizen Science: What Are They and How Do I Get Involved

Photo © eMammal

Camera trapping is the use of remotely activated cameras (a.k.a trail cameras or camera trap) to document wild animals for research, hunting, wildlife viewing, , and security. The technique has been used since the beginning of the 20th century and is gaining popularity, primarily because these tools provide scientists with the ability to address ecologically-difficult questions about ‘when’ and ‘where’ most terrestrial species are found across space and time. For the individual user, a camera trap can simply be an exciting way to view and document the wildlife using the habitat you provide.

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An American black bear (Ursus americanus) captured in the Blue Ridge Mountains

Photo © eMammal

Trail cameras allow us a glimpse into a world humans are rarely privileged to experience; for example, citizen scientists working with the eMammal project answered the age old question, “Do bears poop in the woods?” We now have photographic evidence. They have also discovered new species, like the giant sengi (Rhynchocyon udzungwensis)open_in_new in Tanzania or re-discovered known species, thought to be extinct, like the hairy-nosed otter (Lutra sumatrana)open_in_new in Sabah, Borneo.

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Photo © eMammal

The advancement of trail camera technology over the past century to digital imagery, infrared flash, and light-weight, rechargeable lithium batteries has drastically increased their use by scientists and opened the door to citizen-science monitoring of mammalian species (which are the most likely because of their size and habits to be captured). Trail cameras can operate continuously, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with minimal disturbance to the wildlife being captured. The data collected through these efforts are vouchers of species presence or absence at a given time and location and are available for review by multiple scientists and stored in digital libraries which are curated much like a museum.

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Two leopard cubs (Panthera pardus) in the jungles of Mount Kenya

Photo © eMammal

Trail cameras are also a great tool to inspire conservation awareness and facilitate environmental education. The photos are easily-shared with a wide audience thru electronic media and are an engaging conversation-starter to advance environmental advocacy within a community.

Citizen Science Camera Trapping Opportunities

There are many camera trapping projects around the world, here we highlight a few:

eMammal is a system for collecting, storing, and sharing trail camera data. The system is designed for scientists, citizen scientists, and anyone who wants to join in the fun and discovery of camera trapping. The program is composed of various research projects, some of which recruit volunteers to place cameras while others use hired staff. They encourage anyone who is interested in camera trapping to volunteer for an existing project in their area. Visit the eMammal website for more information.

Snapshot Serengeti operated by the Serengeti Lion Project, this project’s goal is to understand how lions interact with other lions and with other wildlife in the Serengeti National Park. They run 225 trail cameras across Tanzania to monitor all wildlife species including lions and have created one of the largest datasets of trail camera images. Snapshot Serengeti uses crowdsourcing** to help scientists to identify all the species detected through this tremendous effort. Get started now by visiting their site and learn how to use their tool.

Snapshot Wisconsin is a statewide wildlife monitoring program that relies on volunteers to host trail cameras throughout the year. Trail camera volunteers are in charge of setting up a camera and retrieving its SD card at least four times per year. Volunteers then send the photos to WDNR to be posted on Zooniverse and the identifications of the species detected are crowdsourced and saved in a databased to be used by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

CATalogue is apart of a larger effort by Panthera, to monitor big cats at a large enough scale to assist wildlife management and conservation. At multiple sites across the globe, Panthera’s scientists set up a suite of motion-activated camera-trap stations every year and capture tens of thousands photographs of wild cats and other fascinating animals. CATalogue engages with citizen scientists and wildlife lovers around the world, asking that they help identify these photos for the protection and conservations of big cats.

** Crowdsourcing is the practice of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people, especially from the online community, rather than from traditional employees or suppliers. In most cases, camera trapping projects are crowdsourcing the species identification in trail camera photos. A single photo will be viewed and identified by multiple people in the crowd. If there is consensus on the identification, the photo is tagged with the ID and stored. If the crowd does not agree on the ID it goes either to expert review (scientists) or is put back into rotation for further review by the crowd until there is an approved consensus.

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Photo © eMammal

Most citizen-science projects will supply or require a specific camera for their study. Anyone can however, be a camera trapper. If you are interested in purchasing a camera for your own use, there are several brands and options available. Picking a camera can be a dizzying experience. Trail Cam Pro is a great, unbiased, web resource that summarizes the most common trail cameras available.

They suggest to ask yourself four questions to help you find the right camera for your use.
1. What is your budget and how many cameras do you need to purchase within the budget? Camera traps can range from thirty to over a thousand dollars a piece so knowing what your top dollar is will help you narrow the brand and model options.

2. What climate variables will your camera be exposed to? Cameras perform differently in dry vs. wet or cold vs. hot. All cameras on the market claim to be “water resistant” so understanding what brands are known to work in the environment you are interested in camera trapping is important.

3. What is the best flash—infrared or incandescent? Incandescent flash is known to be more invasive because it disturbs animals with a bright white flash at night, which can influence behavior. Infrared flash is less invasive but can only produce black and white photos at night.

4. What are the detection capabilities needed?

  • Quick trigger speeds(the time it takes the camera to wake up and take a picture). are important to capture animals that are moving at fast speeds (i.e. running). Slower trigger speeds will miss (take a photo after the animal has passed) a fast moving animal. The average trigger speed tested on TrailCamPro shootout was a 0.569 second trigger. Less than a 0.5 second trigger speed won’t miss much.
  • Fast recovery times (the time it takes to write the photo to memory and reset to “ready”) will allow you to get multiple picture of the animal(s) moving through the area. A slow recovery speed might miss animals following along a path and skew your count of the number of individuals. The average recovery time in the TrailCamPro shootout was 13.2 seconds. For rapidfire abilities to create video, observe behavior or for accurate counts, < 1.0 second is ideal.
  • Detection ranges(deep and wide detection zones) are important to capture as many animal pictures as possible. Smaller detection ranges will only capture those animals that happen to travel near the location of the camera. Larger detection ranges can capture animals further to the right, left and straight distance from the camera. The average detection distance straight from the camera on the TrailCamPro detection shootout was 73.6 ft. In open habitat the longer the distance the better. In dense habitat no need for longer distances as vegetation does hinder the detection.

Finally, as with most technology, the more you invest financially in a trail camera the longer and better it will perform for your needs.

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A Jaguarundi (Puma jagouaroundi) captured in Mexico

Photo © eMammal

Camera traps provide terrestrial data about where species live and roam, their behaviors, and the resources they use. This information aids in the protection and conservation of wildlife, including threatened and endangered species. Advancements in camera technology make this technology accessible and prolific providing a natural gateway for citizen scientists to engage in collecting and working with large-scale photographic data sets. To get involved in trail camera deployment or crowdsourcing citizen-science projects use the project links above or check out SciStarter– keyword “camera trapping” to get started.