Cameras on collars give scientists intimate view of natural world
November 9, 2023
Viewers see a newborn moose calf struggling to stand mere seconds after it entered the world. The sun shines and the wind blows through a nearby pine tree. As the calf’s mother licks its back, cleaning amniotic fluid away from its fur, the newborn lifts its back legs and tumbles.
It’s one of the most intimate moments a human can witness in the animal world. And researchers have a six-minute video taken not by a human, but by a small camera similar to a GoPro attached to the mother’s neck.
“Watching it, you think at first, ‘I wonder if I was meant to see this,’” said Rebecca Levine, a research scientist at the University of Wyoming’s Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources. “It’s such a private moment.”
A second clip shows a moose stripping one willow branch after another of leaves. Another shows a cow moose wrapping its lips around a raspberry bush, pulling off leaves and berries with little care for spines.
These short windows into animal lives are not only ways to connect us with their world but are also a way to use new technology to answer some very old conservation questions. Questions like what, exactly, are moose, bighorn sheep and deer in Wyoming eating, how much time do they spend with their young after giving birth, and how do they interact with other animals in their area?
And while right now the cameras are just experimental, Levine and other Wyoming wildlife scientists hope as technology develops further, it could become an even more important part of research.
When we’re not watching
Humans have been observing wildlife since the beginning of time, crouching behind trees, bushes or rocks, peering across the plains or following tracks. We’ve watched them more recently with binoculars and spotting scopes, telephoto lenses and drones. But even from a distance, a human can never be quite sure whether an animal’s movements and behavior have been affected in some way by the people in their orbit.
Trail cameras placed on popular game trails or bed sites offer researchers glimpses into where and how animals are moving, and nest cameras inspire millions of people around the world as birds lay eggs and hatch their young. But what common species like deer, and less common species like bighorn sheep and moose, do with their time despite trail cameras and GPS collars is still a question mark.
Cameras tucked under their necks give a unique, up-close perspective.
“There’s no human bias, we’re not there to change what she’s doing,” said Tayler LaSharr, a UW graduate student who has been studying deer in the Wyoming Range for years. “And then we can look at some of the decisions that these individual animals make, and then tie that to things that we do have, like more remote data on survival and reproduction and if they are successful in raising fawns.”
Earlier camera work on caribou prompted discussions among UW wildlife researchers of what else could be gained using the technology, which ultimately led to projects here.
Windows into everyday life
Cow moose, with their 750-pound bodies and long, muscular necks, provided the perfect species to begin trials in Wyoming. Camera collars can be heavy — with ones on moose weighing up to five pounds — especially with enough battery life to take regular images. And moose were big enough to handle them.
So Levine put cameras roughly the size of a GoPro on collars attached to 15 pregnant cow moose in a research area outside of Meeteetse. When researchers placed the collars on the moose they also inserted vaginal implant transmitters — small devices that fall out during delivery and send signals to a satellite. The satellite then triggers the cameras to begin filming.
Each moose camera filmed for six minutes after birth, another six minutes later in the day, and then for 15 seconds every hour during daylight for nine months. During the first year of the three-year study, Levine hiked into the mountains to collect the collar off of a cow moose that had died. The carcass indicated she died of malnutrition and disease. Levine wondered if the moose’s calf had survived delivery, and when she uploaded the footage discovered it had been stillborn.
The video was sad to watch, Levine said, but also encouraging to know she could confirm the calf’s fate, adding more information to the moose study.
LaSharr used a few of the cameras in her long-term Wyoming Range deer research but was limited by size and battery life. Even so, the cameras filmed 15 seconds of video every daylight hour for three or four months. Researchers at UW have also used the cameras on bighorn sheep.
“As they get more advanced there will be very interesting things to look at for how moms care for young, how vigilant they are, how often they’re feeding and how they’re teaching their young to forage, which is something we don’t quite fully know,” LaSharr said.
“Fawns are following their moms around and learning what plants to eat and not, and those are things if the technology advances we could look at.”
Information and inspiration
Viewing exactly what various animals eat during certain times of year could be one of the biggest benefits of the camera footage. Researchers have historically collected fecal samples from study areas and analyzed them to understand diet, but even those analyses have their limitations.
First, some plants digest quicker than others, which means one food might not show up frequently on fecal DNA tests, even though it’s actually a large portion of the creature’s diet, Levine said. The complicated lab tests also may be less accurate than previously understood.
Diet needs also change between males, females and young and even between females who are pregnant or lactating. And it’s almost impossible to collect fecal samples from known individuals, LaSharr said.
“At the end of the day, an animal’s got to eat, and if they’re not eating, they’re not going to persist, and so knowing what they’re eating can be incredibly valuable,” said UW Professor Kevin Monteith, who oversees LaSharr’s and Levine’s research.
Game and Fish biologist Daryl Lutz hopes to use two collar cameras this winter to see where deer concentrate to hopefully understand more about how their patterns could impact spread of chronic wasting disease.
Ultimately, Monteith hopes the engaging footage could join the thousands of videos of nests and images from trail cameras that provide people with intimate portraits of the natural world.
“We might be able to inspire different kinds of thought as to what these animals are,” he said. “These could show a deer isn’t just a deer. They could help people to overcome apathy and taking animals for granted.”
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