By now you’ve probably heard of camera traps, and if you haven’t, you’re definitely familiar with the photos they take.
Camera traps are small cameras hidden inside sturdy boxes that a researcher or photographer attaches to a tree or stake or rock in order to spy on wild animals. The images are incredibly valuable for studying animal science, and now, next-level DSLR cameras are capturing photos that are visually stunning, too.
I spent some time this summer with wildlife photographer Jeff Cremer in the Peruvian Amazon. Together we worked to set up a DSLR camera trap rig along a game trail just above the Tambopata River. It wasn’t always easy, but the camera captured beautiful and rare shots of wild animals in the rainforest.
How Scientists Use Camera Traps
The photos from traditional boxy camera traps have tremendous scientific value. They can help researchers estimate population sizes and species richness in a certain location; they can contribute to research on how animals use a habitat; and they can help biologists identify new species or gain information about endangered, rare, or dangerous animals.
The cameras provide scientists with year-round access to sites that are tough to get to physically, like Antarctica or jungle canopies. They let wildlife managers to keep tabs on the animals they’re responsible for, in a completely hands-off way. They can even do visual health assessments. (A bobcat might not necessarily enjoy seeing a bright flash while tracking down its next meal, but it’s far less stressful than capture techniques, which involve trapping and sedation.)
The photos captured can reveal surprising social behaviors, and give people a unique glimpse into life as a wild animal. How do they hunt? What do they eat? Which species tolerate each other, and which stay away?
Because they’re so easy to use, camera traps have even been used to teach young children about biodiversity and the importance of conservation. In Nicaragua, Paso Pacifico’s Junior Ranger program teaches kids to deploy their own camera traps along the edges of their communities. Since some of the most charismatic wild animals nearby are nocturnal or (wisely) stay away from humans, camera traps might be the only way that the program’s 8- to 14-year-olds can glimpse an ocelot or a jaguar.
Camera traps have indisputably become indispensable in the field biologist’s toolkit. Data can be continuously collected, all day and all night long. And they’re cheaper than employing an army of field assistants to walk along transects every day counting critters.
DLSR Cameras Are Upping the Game
There’s just one problem with traditional camera traps: While the photos are tremendously useful, they’re not usually very pretty (although some higher-end models are producing better and better images as the technology improves). They’re not exactly the kind of photographs you’d print and hang on your wall.
That’s why wildlife photographers have recently started to use DSLRs as camera traps, and they’re making some beautiful, artistic photos as a result. The famous National Geographic cover photo of mountain lion P-22 in front of the Hollywood sign was made using a DSLR camera trap, not a trail cam. That is a photo worth framing.
A DSLR-based camera trap is a leveled-up version of the simpler all-in-one variety.
While the cameras built into traditional camera traps are getting better and better, they just don’t have the versatility of a DSLR (a digital single-lens reflex camera). For one, you can’t switch out the lens on a trail cam like you can on a DSLR. You can’t explicitly set the exposure, aperture, shutter speed, and so on. Trail cams are designed to be widely applicable across a broad range of conditions, while you can program a DSLR to produce the most optimal photos every time you set your camera up in a new spot.
Rather than relying on a motion sensor, which can be triggered by branches and raindrops, an animal must actively break an IR beam passing between a transmitter and a receiver. The receiver connects to the camera and triggers its remote shutter. Since this was a camera that Jeff intended to leave in the jungle for up to a month, it needed lots of batteries, so it was outfitted with an extended battery pack. The two flashes, which we enclosed within plastic boxes and duct taped to nearby trees, also had custom-made battery packs.
The challenge was that Jeff had a Canon camera body, but the best flashes for the job – ones that could enter into “sleep mode” to preserve battery life – are made by Nikon. To solve the problem, Jeff had a custom adapter made that would translate the Canon signal from the camera into something the Nikon flashes could read.
DSLRs aren’t as sturdy as traditional trail cams. They can suffer from moisture, mud, heat, cold, and so on. That’s why we took steps to enclose the flashes in plastic boxes, and secured a plastic bag around the camera itself, leaving an opening just wide enough for the lens to poke through.
There’s more to worry about than extreme weather in the Amazon. When he returned to check on the trap one month later, Jeff found that a colony of termites had decided to take up residence inside his camera.
“At first I thought that they only got at the outside of the camera and that it would be fine,” said Jeff. “But when I took the lens off, I saw that they were inside the camera and started building on the lens as well. They even started eating the memory card that was inside the camera.”
It isn’t clear exactly what species it is, but the termites are Nasutitermes, a genus comprising some 70 species found throughout the jungle. It seems as if we made the unfortunate decision of placing the camera near an active termite colony.
“In the Amazon, every single niche is exploited, including Canon camera bodies. Maybe because Jeff weatherproofed it so well the termites found it to be a suitable fortress to colonize,” said entomologist Aaron Pomerantz. “So they did what termites do and put muddy termite poo tunnels all over it while exploring the new terrain.”
Still, some of the photos were absolutely stunning.
This mountain lion, for example, is quite a rare find. It seems as if the cat was walking along minding its own business when it tripped the IR beam. When it heard the camera shutter, it turned to investigate and approached the sound before losing curiosity and continuing on in search of something to eat – perhaps a tapir or peccary.
The ocelot is sort of a miniature jaguar.
Even more exciting than the ocelot and mountain lion is this margay. It’s easy to confuse margays and ocelots, but margays are smaller, have longer tails, rounder ears, and larger eyes. This is an extremely rare find, even for a camera trap, since margays are arboreal, coming to the ground only occasionally to find a rat or another small mammal to eat.
Peccaries are common in southeastern Peru, though as more of the rainforest is being converted for agriculture they seem to be losing their habitat. The wild pigs need large, continuous tracts of lowland rainforest.
This giant armadillo, who is quite clearly a male, is also a fairly rare find. There are just one to two individuals found in every 100 square kilometers of rainforest. Adults are 30-40 inches long, with their tails adding another 20 inches. Think of them as massive, armored tanks.
Tapirs are the largest mammals in the jungle and they, too, are notoriously hard to find. The Amazon is a biodiversity wonderland, but if you set out hoping to see any one particular species, you’d have to get extremely lucky. In the week I spent in the jungle, I didn’t see a single one. While they look sort of like weird horses, tapirs are more closely related to rhinos.
This Spix’s guan is a good sign that the rainforest surrounding the camera trap — the Tambopata Reserve — is quite healthy. The turkey-sized birds are a favorite for hunters, so if they’re around it means that the jungle is well protected.
Jeff has already replaced his poo-covered camera and lens, and has also purchased a custom-made Pelican case with a lens-sized hole in it for added protection. Hopefully that will keep the termites out next time. And he’s got big plans.
“I really want to capture a good shot of a wild black jaguar on camera. That would be totally awesome.”
Images courtesy of Jeff Cremer