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, and acceleration.
These compact systems allow scientists to study animal behavior without interference by a human observer. Combining solid data with gripping imagery, Crittercam brings the animal's point of view to the scientific community and a conservation message to worldwide audiences.
For more than a decade Crittercam has given us insight into the lives of whales, sharks, seals and sea lions, sea turtles, penguins, manatees, and other marine animals. In 2002 the first prototype of a terrestrial Crittercam (designed for land animals) survived its maiden voyage on a wild African lion, opening the door to a whole new world of animal-borne imaging research.
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, then disappeared into the murk with three quick strokes of its tail. Greg noticed a remora (or sucker fish) clinging to the shark.
As Greg watched the shark disappear, it occurred to him that if he could put a camera in the place of the remora, he could see the shark's behavior unfold without disturbing the shark.
More than two decades later Greg heads the Remote Imaging Program at National Geographic. Collaborating with scientists worldwide, Greg and his team have deployed Crittercam on hundreds of animals to help investigate biological mysteries.
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 cut through the murky waters of Southeast Alaska to reveal humpback whales' trademark "bubble net" feeding tactic with biologist Fred Sharpe. The team has followed New Zealand sea lions to their foraging grounds with biologist Nick Gales. And they've stalked the ice with a leopard seal with mammalogist Tracey Rogers.
As part of an early 2003 National Geographic collaboration with biologist Laurence Frank, Crittercam roamed the African night on the back of a hunting lion. In summer 2003 it accompanied a grizzly bear into the thick of Alaska's temperate rain forest on a project with biologist LaVern Beier.
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 Crittercam story is just beginning. In the Remote Imaging laboratory at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C., Greg and his engineering team are constantly working to make Crittercam smaller, lighter, and more hydrodynamic.
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.
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