Have Camera Trap, Will Travel

A camera-trap image shows brow lemurs along an "arboreal highway" in Madagascar.

A camera-trap image shows brown lemurs along an “arboreal highway” in Madagascar.

Once again, I am packing and getting ready for my next field trip. This year, a major component of my conservation and research efforts will be conducted in Madagascar, where the world’s most threatened mammal group, the lemurs, continues its decline due to an all-too- familiar scenario: the unsustainable use of natural resources coupled with political instability. Slowing and ultimately reversing this process requires knowledge about the animals and their habitat. At Maromizaha (see post For the Love of Lemurs and Monkeys), I am leading a camera trap project with partners from the University of Torino, Italy, and the Research Group on the Primates of Madagascar to expand our knowledge about the lemurs, their predators, and the elements in their habitat necessary for the populations to flourish. .

Decades ago, when I began my career as a primatologist, all I needed to take to the field were my binoculars, notebooks, and pens. Nowadays, along with my binoculars and writing instruments, I am also in need of camera traps. Originally developed for game hunters and wildlife hobbyists, camera traps are rapidly becoming wildlife biologists’ most trusted field assistants, due to exponential advances in their technology. Camera traps are particularly suited for studying animals, such as lemurs, that tend to shy away from areas where human scent is encountered.

Zafison Boto practices mounting a camera. Photo credit: R. M.  Randrianarison

Zafison Boto practices mounting a camera. Photo credit: R. M. Randrianarison

A single camera trap image can tell us which animal species is present, who the individual is, what the animal is doing, what time of the day or the year the animal is active, which animals or individuals are using the same area, and much, much more. And unlike a researcher or their assistants, the camera trap is unobtrusive and needs no sleep. It can operate 24/7, come rain, sleet, or snow.

From my previous camera trap work in Fanjingshan National Nature Reserve in China, we uncovered many never-known-before facts (see Monkeys, Leopard Cats, and Bears, Oh My! and What Might Monkeys Be Up To?). One of the most exciting discoveries came from our images of Guizhou snub-nosed monkeys moving at night. This finding created quite a stir in the scientific community, enough so that the research article that contained these images was the most downloaded for the journal Primates in 2013. Furthermore, online news media Discovery News and NBC News also featured a story about our camera trap effort.

Maromizaha offers an unparalleled opportunity to observe 13 species of lemurs interacting in a relatively pristine setting. Here, we began our pilot camera trap study last April. The cameras are only useful to the research team if they are placed in ideal locations. Unlike their depiction in cartoons, wild animals, including lemurs, do not stop and pose for a photograph; therefore, applying our prior knowledge of lemur behavior is extremely crucial.

Zafison tests the range of the infrared sensor on a camera trap.

Zafison tests the range of the infrared sensor on a camera trap.

My team and I surveyed the forest first on foot, selecting areas that could serve as possible camera trap locations before we installed our initial set of cameras. We made certain to sample a variety of microhabitat types to maximize our “trapping” success. Because lemurs, like humans, have routes that they travel habitually, placement of our cameras along these arboreal highways greatly enhanced the likelihood that the lemurs would be “captured” as they went about their daily activities.

For training my Malagasy team to use the camera trap device, I created a manual for proper field deployment based on lessons learned from our work in Fanjingshan. Everyone involved enjoyed learning and acquiring this new skill.

Now, for the first time, we are learning about the wildlife community in Maromizaha in broad daylight as well as after the sun sets. Already we have acquired many fantastic images of lemurs and other wildlife species, including their arch enemy, the fossa. Soon we will be installing newer cameras that have a faster trigger speed and sharper images than before.

I cannot wait to begin our next round of monitoring! I hope we will see the elusive aye-aye soon, or perhaps a bamboo munching broad-nosed gentle lemur. More mysteries await, as camera traps are like a box of chocolates: you never know what you are going to get!

Chia Tan, Ph.D., is a scientist at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, The Things We Do for Biodiversity Conservation.

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