Photograph by Birgit Buhleier
What is Crittercam?
National Geographic's Crittercam systems are research instruments worn by wild animals. The systems allow scientists to study the animals' behavior and ecology. Crittercams allow video and sound recording as well as environmental data collection (such as depth, temperature, GPS position and acceleration readings).
The program has grown to include a number of Crittercam models. Marine Crittercams are streamlined water-and pressure-proof, built for the underwater world. Terrestrial Crittercams—built to be worn by land animals—are generally simple box-shape containers, designed to attach to a collar. There are different versions of each type, adapted in size and capability for different research projects.
Crittercam systems are deployed on animals for research, to go where the animals go and see what they see, undisturbed by a human observer. They allow us, for the first time, to witness the lives of animals from the animals' own perspectives.
How was Crittercam invented?
In 1986, while diving off the coast of Belize, marine biologist Greg Marshall encountered a shark. The shark approached him, and then disappeared with three quick strokes of its tail.
Stuck to the shark's belly was a remora fish. As Greg watched the shark disappear, it occurred to him that if he deployed a camera in place of the remora, he could observe the shark's behavior unfold without disturbing the shark.
Inspired, Greg built the first prototype of what would come to be called Crittercam and deployed it on a sea turtle in 1987. The turtle behaved normally—the first indication that this type of system had potential as a research tool.
Who makes Crittercam?
The Crittercams are designed and built by the Remote Imaging team at the National Geographic Society, employing biologists and engineers. They work together to understand what the research community needs and then create the tools to fill those needs.
What animals have worn Crittercams?
Since its inception, we have conducted Crittercam field studies with more than 70 marine and terrestrial species: African elephant, African Lion, American alligator, American bison, Australian fur seal, Australian sea lion, Barbary macaques, bearded seal, beluga whale, black bear, black marlin, blue domarlin, blue shark, blue whale, bowhead whale, brown bear, bull shark, cheetah, common snapping turtle, copper shark, coyote, dense-beaked whale, domestic and feral cats, dugong, elephant seal, emperor penguin, false killer whale, Galapagos tortoises, giant South American river turtle, great hammerhead shark, great white shark, green sea turtle, gray reef shark, gray seal, gray wolf, harbor seal, Hawaiian monk seal, hawksbill sea turtle, Humboldt squid, humpback whale, Indo-Pacific sailfish, jaguar, Juan Fernandez fur seal, killer whale, leatherback turtles mate? sea turtle, leopard seal, loggerhead sea turtle, long-tailed macaques, masked booby, Matschie's tree kangaroo, melon-headed whale, narwhal, New Zealand (Hooker's) sea lion, northern fur seal, northern right whale, nurse shark, olive ridley sea turtle, pilot whale, ragged tooth shark, ringed seal, salmon shark, short-eared dog, sperm whale, spinetail Manta, spotted hyena, Steller sea lion, striped marlin, sturgeon, thresher shark, tiger shark, walrus, West Indian manatee, and the whale shark.
With many of these species we have done studies in multiple locations and/or over multiple years.
How are Crittercams attached to animals?
The method depends on the species. We deploy Crittercam systems in collaboration with scientists who are experts in their fields, working with them to adapt or develop attachment methods.
For whales, dolphins, and leatherback turtles, we developed special suction cups. With seals and hard-shelled turtles we use a small adhesive patch. Custom-tailored, backpack-like harnesses do the job for penguins, and a passive fin clamp keeps Crittercam swimming with sharks.
For land animals such as bears, lions, and hyenas, we've developed a Crittercam collar-mounted system. How to attach the Crittercams—without hurting the animal, without bothering the animal, secure enough to stay on but (in some cases) releasing automatically—poses a technical challenge that can rival design of the Crittercams themselves.
Do Crittercams bother animals?
The purpose of using Crittercam systems is to record animal behavior that's not influenced or disturbed by the presence of a human. If Crittercam bothered the animal, we would not be able to record natural behavior.
We deploy as quickly and gently as possible, and most animals are back to acting normally soon after being outfitted with a Crittercam. We are always watching for some hint that the animals are noticing the Crittercams, both when we deploy them and as we watch the video afterward. In a few cases, we’ve seen the animals investigate the cameras, but they quickly resume their day-to-day activities.
Have you lost any Crittercams?
A lot of thought goes into both the technology and deployment planning to help ensure we get the systems back. Our recovery rate over more than 1000 deployments is about 95 percent.
Every time we deploy a Crittercam, we're basically sending thousands of dollars' worth of equipment into the ocean or the outback with a wild animal in charge of it. The Crittercams record all data onboard, so if we don't get the systems back, we don't get the video, the sound, and that’s really the most important thing lost if we lose a system.
What do you learn with Crittercam?
We learn how animals use their habitat, where they feed, and how they interact with animals of their own species and of other species. We gain insight into how they communicate and even into their physiology—virtually every aspect of life.
How do you remove Crittercam from an animal?
Most systems are designed to automatically release from the animal, at a preset time or under certain conditions (ex. low battery or the memory is full). The marine systems are designed to float to the surface, the terrestrial ones just drop to the ground. Both types have a radio beacon to allow us to track and recovery the unit with a directional antenna.
In a few cases, the animals are recaptured to remove the Crittercam. That is usually when the researcher we’re working with wants to collect some information about the animal before-and-after the deployments, such as weight or blood samples—data that they’ll combine with what they see in the video to get a better understanding of the implications of what is revealed there.
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