Photo: Penguin with camera

Photograph courtesy Crittercam

National Geographic's Crittercam is a research tool designed to be worn by wild animals. It combines video and audio recording with collection of environmental data such as depth, temperature, GPS position and acceleration.

These compact systems allow scientists to study animal behavior without interference by a human observer. Combining solid data with fascinating imagery, Crittercam brings the animal's point of view to the scientific community and a conservation message to worldwide audiences.

For more than 25 years, the National Geographic Crittercam Program has worked with researchers, providing insight into the lives of whales, bears, sharks, seals and sea lions, cheetahs, wolves, sea turtles, penguins, alligators, and many others.

Origin of Crittercam

Crittercam was conceived in 1986 by marine biologist and filmmaker Greg Marshall. A shark approached Greg during a diving trip off Belize, and then disappeared into the distance with three quick strokes of its tail. Greg noticed a remora (‘sucker fish’) clinging to the shark.

As Greg watched the shark disappear, it occurred to him that if a camera could ride along unobtrusively like the remora, he could see the shark's behavior unfold without disturbing the shark.

Crittercam Today

Almost three decades later, the Crittercam Program at National Geographic has worked with more than 70 species of wild animals. Collaborating with scientists worldwide, the team has deployed Crittercam on more than 1000 animals to help answer biologists questions and revealing previously unknown behaviors.

With Frank Parrish of the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, they've plunged to new depths to define the foraging habitats of the critically endangered Hawaiian monk seal. With physiologist Paul Ponganis and marine biologist Gerry Kooyman of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, they've dived beneath the Antarctic ice to hunt with emperor penguins.

With Mike Heithaus the team has tackled the puzzle of how the tiger shark influences its community. They've illuminated complex, cooperative hunting techniques of humpback whales, both in of Southeast Alaska with Fred Sharpe and off of Cape Cod, Massachusetts with Ari Friedlaender. We’ve discovered new foraging behaviors of leopard seals with biologist Doug Krause.

As the Crittercam technology has advanced, the terrestrial side of the program has expanded greatly. We’ve participated in studies of urban wildlife: coyotes in Chicago with Stan Gehrt, black bears at Lake Tahoe with Mario Klip. Crittercam has been used to study conflict between livestock herders and cheetahs and lions in Africa. And the hidden life of canopy-dwelling tree kangaroos in Papua New Guinea with Lisa Dabek.

Each of these projects was driven by science—by a need to answer a research question that could not be addressed any other way. Today we are experiencing life from the animal's point of view, thanks to Crittercam.

The Future

The smaller the systems, the more species that can be studied with Crittercam. The more powerful the instrument, the more information it can gather to give context to the images. The more refined the attachment methods—suction cup, harness, fin clamp, safe adhesive—the better the chances of deploying and recovering Crittercam.

The evolution of Crittercam systems and the expansion of the Crittercam Program never stop. New technologies make things possible that were out or reach just a few years ago. New questions and challenges from the research community drive the team to innovate.

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