A Candid Camera for Wildlife

16:05 minutes

An elephant vandal tips over a camera trap. Image by T. O’Brien / M. Kinnaird / WCS and courtesy of Candid Creatures: How Camera Traps Reveal the Mysteries of Nature, by Roland Kays (May 15, 2016, Johns Hopkins University Press)
An elephant vandal tips over a camera trap. Image by T. O’Brien / M. Kinnaird / WCS and courtesy of Candid Creatures: How Camera Traps Reveal the Mysteries of Nature, by Roland Kays (May 15, 2016, Johns Hopkins University Press)

Scientists trying to learn about the lifestyles of elusive critters (tigers and cougars come to mind) have their work cut out for them. Many animals will smell or hear a researcher long before the researcher sees them. As for observing nocturnal animals? Forget it. But in the last few years, many wildlife researchers studying animals in situ have had a technological assist—from camera traps. These devices lie in wait until a passing animal triggers their motion sensor. Then, click!—a candid shot of a creature in the wild.

Zoologist Roland Kays recently compiled a “best of” selection of camera-trap photos for his book Candid Creatures: How Camera Traps Reveal the Mysteries of Nature. He joins Ira to talk about what these candid cameras contribute to science and conservation. Plus, see more animal selfies here.

  • The Virginia opossum is a common backyard animal in much of North America. By sleeping under sheds and back porches, this species has been able to extend its range northward, into colder climates than it would otherwise be able to tolerate. Image by Sebastian Kennerknecht. Courtesy of Candid Creatures: How Camera Traps Reveal the Mysteries of Nature, by Roland Kays (May 15, 2016, Johns Hopkins University Press)

  • A pair of chimpanzees is caught on film using a fallen tree to cross a creek after raiding a farmer’s corn crop. Image by Krief/Sebitoli Chimpanzee Project. Courtesy of Candid Creatures: How Camera Traps Reveal the Mysteries of Nature, by Roland Kays (May 15, 2016, Johns Hopkins University Press)

  • A coyote carries a domestic cat it has killed to a highway underpass in Southern California. Image by Kevin Crooks. Courtesy of Candid Creatures: How Camera Traps Reveal the Mysteries of Nature, by Roland Kays (May 15, 2016, Johns Hopkins University Press)

  • This agouti is enjoying fresh fruit under an Astrocaryum tree during the fruiting season. After chewing off the sweet orange pulp, the rodent will bury seeds in scattered underground caches, hoping to retrieve and eat them later. Buried seeds that are forgotten or abandoned have an excellent chance of growing into a new tree. Image by Christian Ziegler. Courtesy of Candid Creatures: How Camera Traps Reveal the Mysteries of Nature, by Roland Kays (May 15, 2016, Johns Hopkins University Press)

  • Researchers planted this camera trap (complete with robotic toy cat) in order to study what local species prey on cats. Here, a great horned owl takes the bait. The cat was found not far away, mostly intact, suggesting that the owl probably discovered the ruse after its first bite. Image by Roland Kays. Courtesy of Candid Creatures: How Camera Traps Reveal the Mysteries of Nature, by Roland Kays (May 15, 2016, Johns Hopkins University Press)

  • Poachers in a Tennessee state park wear masks so the camera trap won’t allow authorities to identify them. These men are poaching ginseng root by digging up a small understory plant, which can be seen stuffed into the shirt of the man to the left. Image by eMammal. Courtesy of Candid Creatures: How Camera Traps Reveal the Mysteries of Nature, by Roland Kays (May 15, 2016, Johns Hopkins University Press)

Segment Guests

Roland Kays

Roland Kays is a zoologist and is Head of the Biodiversity Research Laboratory at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. He’s also Research Associate Professor at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Segment Transcript

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.

Every day I go out to check my deck. I go looking for the bulbs I’ve planted in the pots, the newly planted ones. And more times than not, some squirrel has dug through the pot, spewing soil all over.

And each day after swearing words unsuitable for broadcast I think, I wish I could catch that thief in the act. In fact, my yard is full of life. Deer, rabbits, even a few turkeys, not to mention the birds at my feeder. And what I need is something that scientists and citizen scientists alike are turning to, the camera trap.

This is not something you actually physically catch animals in. It’s a device that takes pictures of even the most camera shy critter. And here to explain how camera traps work and why they are research tools is Roland Kays.

He’s a camera trapper, a zoologist, he’s head of the Biodiversity Research Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Sciences in Raleigh. And he put together for us a best-of camera trap pictures in his new book called, Candid Creatures.

And if you have a camera trap and you want to tell us about it, give us a call. Our number is 844-724-8255. And we welcome to Science Friday, Dr. Kays.

ROLAND KAYS: Great. Thanks for having me. It’s exciting to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. You know, maybe I can catch a picture of those squirrels at work. How does the average camera trap work?

ROLAND KAYS: Well, it’s pretty simple really. It’s a motion sensor and a camera. And whenever, usually it’s a warm-blooded animal that will trigger the motion sensor, the camera will start taking pictures.

And these days it can take video. And typically will have infrared flash so that if it’s at night, which is when really most animals are out moving around, they usually don’t even really notice it’s there. It’s just a– that’s why you get the black and white images at night. But it doesn’t blind them like a white flash might.

IRA FLATOW: No. In your book, Candid Creatures, How Camera Traps Reveal the Mysteries of Nature, you have some great– you had some great luck. I’m not going to call it luck. You’re very skilled at getting–

ROLAND KAYS: Well, it wasn’t me. I mean, some of my pictures are there. But I actually have contributions from 152 different scientists all around the world. I would basically read a cool science paper that found something interesting with camera traps, and write the author and say, hey. Would you be willing to share some pictures?

And every camera trapper has a greatest hits folder of pictures on their computer. And people would graciously share these with me. And I would pick the few best ones from that. So these are the highlights from what must be millions and millions of pictures that have been taken by scientists all around the world.

IRA FLATOW: So you only have a tip of the iceberg of all the photos that they’ve sent you.

ROLAND KAYS: Oh yeah. Sure. I mean, I picked the most exciting ones either that were beautiful or that were really informative and telling. But the average camera trap will get pictures of a blurry squirrel that’s running by, or the butt of a deer that’s walking by. And then mixed in there you find the real gems of an animal sort of looking right at the camera, or a coyote carrying a squirrel in its mouth, or something like that.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. How far back does– is this a hobby that goes back a ways?

ROLAND KAYS: It goes back a long ways, actually. Over 100 years, back when it was big old cameras with sort of glass plates on these giant tripods. And giant cakes of magnesium powder.

And you couldn’t sneak up on an animal with one of those in your hand. But people would leave them, and then just tie a string to a piece a bait to the trigger. And that’s how they got the first camera trap pictures.

And people were so struck by these. These were the first– actually, the first wildlife pictures ever printed in National Geographic Magazine came from a camera trap.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. These camera traps really tell stories. Tell us the drama you saw when you set up your camera outside a fox den. It’s quite interesting.

ROLAND KAYS: Yeah, sure. So I have a couple special camera traps that actually send me the images live through the cellphone network, which is a little bit more expensive. So I just have a couple of those.

But we found– I was out with some students from North Carolina State University. And we found this hole in the ground. And sort of one of the most basic questions. Well, I wonder what’s using this hole.

So we put this camera trap out. And we immediately got pictures of these two foxes visiting the den. And so we thought, hey, maybe this is– it was spring time. Maybe they’ll have babies.

And then we saw the foxes bringing in prey. We saw them bringing in squirrels. Actually, Easter morning, they brought in a bunny rabbit.

And and then we saw the puppies started coming out. But then we also had a coyote coming by. And coyotes are not the friend of foxes. They at a one time stole the rabbit the parents had brought. And they’re definitely a threat to the foxes.

And we actually have this camera going again now in Raleigh. And this year they have– well, they had two puppies. Now we only see one. So we’re not quite sure what happened to the other one.

But it’s still unfolding. I’m going to go check again and see, get an update probably later today.

IRA FLATOW: Well, we’ve actually got a video camera trap, your video camera trap monitoring these foxes. I want to play some sound that’s our listeners can listen to. Let me play it, then maybe you could tell us what we’re hearing.



IRA FLATOW: What was that?

ROLAND KAYS: Yeah. So these video camera traps are great because you see in better resolution what’s actually going on. And then you get this audio, which is this whole bonus.

And I actually am not really sure what’s going on in this. Maybe one of your colleagues know foxes better. Because in this video, you see it’s the pup is in the hole. And it’s looking up at its parent. And the parent is looking right down at it.

And the pup is making these clacking noises. And I’m thinking it might be some kind of begging sound. But I also sort of wonder if he’s complaining about what his brother did to him down in the hole.

IRA FLATOW: So that’s not a mechanical noise, that clacking? That’s the pup–

ROLAND KAYS: No. That’s the pup. That’s the pup talking to its mom.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. If anybody knows what that is, give us a call 844–

ROLAND KAYS: I have some other footage where there– sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt–

IRA FLATOW: Let me just give out that number. 844-724-8255. Even if you don’t know what that is and you want to talk about this topic, 844-724-8255 is our number. You can also tweet us @scifri.

Go ahead. What were you about to say?

ROLAND KAYS: Well, we have some other footage of them begging where clearly the pups are whining and begging. And they want the mom to give her food or to regurgitate food. Parents will regurgitate. So I’ve seen that.

But that cackling sound, I’m not sure if that’s just another kind of begging or some other interaction.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. I’ve got another soundbite that you gave us. Here’s another clip from that video trap outside the foxhole. And then you tell us what it is.




ROLAND KAYS: That’s a really great one. And I know I know exactly what that is. Because what you hear in the background, that’s the parent foxes barking.

And I’ve heard that when I go change the battery. Sometimes they’ll bark at me, and I try to get out of there as soon as I can.

But in this case, the video camera trap was triggered by a coyote. He was right there at the den. He was trying to get into the den, but he’s too fat to fit into the hole. This is the whole reason the foxes are using the den is to protect their pups.

So the coyote is there trying to get in. And the mom or dad pup is offscreen somewhere. And she’s barking at him to try to get to coyote out of there.

And you can hear the coyotes footsteps as he runs away, chasing right up towards where that sound was. Probably trying to chase the fox. So in this case, I guess it kind of worked. The fox got the coyote out of there by luring it away.

IRA FLATOW: So you’re not fearful of hanging out with the coyotes, I can see.

ROLAND KAYS: Well, we try to have as little impact as we can. We have to change the batteries every once in a while and get the memory chips sometimes. And so we get in there and out of there as fast as we can.

IRA FLATOW: So what’s the main lesson? What are scientists rigging up these camera traps, what are they trying to find out?

ROLAND KAYS: Well, all these animals are– all around the world, are dealing with increasing human presence. And some animals like these red foxes actually do pretty well around people. But a lot of other species don’t. Talking about rhinos, and tigers, and jaguars, and some of these big animals that it’s almost impossible to see these guys with your own eyes.

So if we want to understand where the surviving. Where they’re doing well. Where they’re doing poorly. And try to find solutions for how humans can figure out a way to coexist on the planet with these animals, we need this type of information. And camera traps are great for delivering what animal lives where. And then as a bonus you get these beautiful pictures.

IRA FLATOW: I have a tweet here, a little informational tweet from Judy who says, please tell your wildlife biologist a fox puppy is called a kit.

ROLAND KAYS: Yeah. I hear that sometimes. Some people call it– I mean, it’s a canid, right? So I’ve been calling them puppies. Some people call them kits. I don’t know if there’s some sort of a panel that officially decides what the babies are called.

IRA FLATOW: OK. Where do I go from there?

You did a camera trap experiment recently that involved a stuffed toy robot cat. This sounded wild. Explain what you did. What were you trying to find out?

ROLAND KAYS: Well, It was kind of wild. We were wondering what would attack a cat. In particular, we had people tell us that fishers were killing cats. And this is up in the Northeast where fishers are a big weasel or a small wolverine, depending on your perspective.

And they are this wild animal that’s a predator that has been recolonizing urban areas in the Northeast. And this is up in Albany, New York, where we knew we had a lot of fishers. And we were wondering, would they actually kill a cat?

And we’ve been studying the fishers. We’ve been following their footprints in the snow. We had looked at their diet. And we didn’t see any evidence that they actually were eating cats.

But we thought, well, let’s do an experiment. Actually put a cat out there. And we didn’t want to use a real cat.

So we looked online to try to find the most realistic fake cat we could find. And it actually came at Toys “R” Us with this little robot cat that would kind of meow and move around a little bit. So we put that out in the woods. We sprinkled some real cat hair out there to try to give it a real smell.

And we did get– we never got a fisher coming around. We did get a coyote come and sniff it. And I think he must have smelled the batteries. And he didn’t do– he didn’t actually do anything with it.

But this owl came down and landed in front of it, put up its wings, and then sunk its talons into the cat and, well, tried to fly away with it. He didn’t get too far. But he did fly with it right out of view. So it’s evidence that definitely Great Horned Owls are a threat to anybody’s cat who is out in the woods at night.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. I didn’t know that. That’s good to know.

A lot of these photos that you have captured some pretty interesting animal behavior. Like the tayra. Talk a little bit about that behavior.

ROLAND KAYS: Oh, the tayra study was great. This is some biologists who were down in Costa Rica. And they just glimpsed a tayra, which is– actually, a tayra is similar to the fischer. It’s a big weasel.

It’s in the rainforest. It’s running around. And it had a plantain in its mouth. But it was a green plantain, so it wasn’t ripe yet.

And they thought, why would a tayra be carrying this fruit that it can’t possibly eat now? Because it’s not– an unripe plantain is really better.

So they started investigating more. And they put a camera trap on the plantain tree. And then they also put some radio transmitters in the green plantains to see what was happening.

And they got a picture of this tayra ripping off these green plantains. And then running away with and hiding it under the leaves and basically caching it. And it was– and then it would come back and get it when it would ripen.

So it was basically taking these so that the monkeys wouldn’t get it later, and hiding it . And it’s just an amazing amount of foresight for a wild animal like this to realize– to make this plan and execute it. And it was caught in the act with a camera trap.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. I’m talking with Roland Kays, author of best-of camera traps pictures in his new book. He’s got a great book, Candid Creatures. And all kinds of stuff in there.

Let me go to the phones, see if we can get a phone call in from Mark in Big Island, Hawaii. Hi, Mark.

MARK: Hey. That’s me. All right. Can you hear me?

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Go ahead.

MARK: Yeah. I had the most amazing adventure. It took about four months. But I’ll cut right to the chase.

I live on a one acre parcel where I have 130 cacao trees. Cocoa, chocolate, you know, cacao. And my neighbor has a manicured golf course lawn, but it’s all zoned ag.

So the pigs– we’ve had this drought here because of El Nino. They have moved up into the neighborhoods and they’re demolishing– pigs are horrible animals for demolishing– they look for earthworms and whatnot.

So I started with snares. I got hold of a local contact. And he started me with passive snares, then active snares.

And then for Christmas my son-in-law got me a trail cam. I call it a trail cam. And it has various– it was good. It didn’t have sound but it had selective resolutions, and durations, and a lot of settings. Pretty high tech.

So I saw these pigs. There were several of them. But the one was the sow that was really bothering me.

So I wasn’t catching her with snares. So I got hold of a local boy with a legit trap.

IRA FLATOW: Well, I got– I’m running out of time, Mark. Did you capture it on your camera?

MARK: Yes. I got beautiful pictures of it if you want to see her. I used it initially to look at anatomy. Because then I went to progress to bow hunting. And I have no clue about what bow hunting was. But I got target practice. And I got anatomy pictures of her.

Then I got tired of looking at that. And all I looked at was–

IRA FLATOW: I got to say goodbye because we’re running out of time. I’m sure it’s a great story. And I’m sure maybe you’ll get a picture of what he caught Roland for your next book. Got to follow-up.

ROLAND KAYS: Yeah. Well, it’s interesting because these camera traps or trail cameras as he called them are used quite a lot by hunters to try to figure out where the animals are that they’re trying to hunt, whether it’s a pest like this hog or during deer hunting season.

So the biologists actually benefit quite a bit from the market that hunters have created for camera traps. And all these companies are making newer and better camera traps often for the hunters as much as for the biologists.

IRA FLATOW: Roland Kays, research associate professor at NC State University. Candid Creatures, How Camera Traps Reveal the Mysteries of Nature. Great book. Thank you for taking the time to be with us today.

ROLAND KAYS: Great. Well, thanks for having me on.

IRA FLATOW: And if you want to see few of those candid creatures, you can go to our website. We’ve got a gallery of animal selfies, plus Julie Leibach great article, “Selfies From the Animal Kingdom.” It’s all on ScienceFriday.com/cameras.

And speaking of animal kingdom and camera traps, they are just one of the ways you can take a sample with our Science Club sampling project. Come and join the fun at ScienceFriday.com/scienceclub. Take a sample, show of your success. You can tweet you samples with the hashtag #TakeASample in time for our wrap-up next week.

One last thing before we go. This week we received the word of the death of Nobel Prize winning chemist, Sir Harry Kroto. He was a co-discoverer of the buckminsterfullerene, really by accident. Serendipity as he called it. While trying to study the chemistry of carbon molecules in distant stars.

And when Sir Harry spoke with us in Tallahassee back in 2009, he made the case for basic research of the kind of produced his buckyballs.

SIR HARRY KROTO: So in a sense, it’s the fundamental science. Looking at the way the world works, which brings the surprise they didn’t expect.

We need funding for fundamental science. Because out of that fundamental science, the unexpected discoveries lead to the massive breakthroughs. And if you’re only looking at applications and strategic things, you leave this other area of very important ones behind.

IRA FLATOW: Sir Harry Kroto, dead at the age of 76.

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