Observing animals in the wild can be tricky; if you can see them, chances are they can see you. Or smell you. Or hear you. Many times, they know you’re coming and vanish. For biologists, this is a big deal. Even if animals get used to you and go back to their business, are they still behaving as they would if no one was there?
One solution is camera traps, which are the focus of local zoologist Roland Kays’ new book, “Candid Creatures: How Camera Traps Reveal the Mysteries of Nature.” In it, the head of the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences’ Biodiversity and Earth Observation Laboratory and N.C. State University research associate professor presents a wide range of animals, from domestic cats and white-tailed deer to pandas and snow leopards, all photographed when they triggered hidden cameras. Some of these creatures, like bush dogs and giant armadillos, are shy, secretive and difficult to observe in the wild.
“The species had been in a museum, so we knew it existed and it had a name, but often we didn’t know much more about it,” Kays said. “How else are you going to collect data? With the Sumatran striped rabbit, we know almost nothing about that little guy.”
Animals like the Javan rhino are on the brink of extinction, so camera traps help keep count of its struggling population. Others, like chimpanzees, are creatures we thought we knew. With camera traps, researchers have learned that chimpanzees sneak into corn fields at night to steal corn, and they have observed how chimpanzees share their environment with elephants and gorillas.
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When The News & Observer caught up with Kays, he was preparing for a trip to Panama to work on a Smithsonian Channel documentary about his research on foxes, jaguars and coyotes. He’ll return in time for an appearance on Aug. 16 at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh. We spoke with him about his research and its remarkably close connection to a longstanding North Carolina tradition – hunting.
Q: Is Panama the southernmost range of coyotes right now? Have they crossed the canal?
A: They have crossed the canal. They’re marching toward South America. At the same time, what we discovered a couple of years ago is that there’s a South American fox that jumped into Panama and is now moving north. The two species just ran into each other in eastern Panama. I have a student who did some camera trapping there last year, and we’re going down there to talk about some of what we found for the documentary.
Q: You’re studying dynamic populations. This is happening now.
A: Absolutely. This is one of the reasons camera traps are really great. They document what the world is like today and you can compare that with what the world is like tomorrow or what it was like 10 years ago. You have this photograph that is what we call a “voucher.” In the museum world, we have specimens. We have specimens that are voucher specimens, and you can go down and confirm that this was a coyote and this was a raccoon, and you can look on the tag and see the location and the date that it was collected. That’s how we know where species live, traditionally.
The world is changing so fast today, whether it’s things like climate change or expanding species like coyotes and foxes, which is probably associated with habitat destruction, that we can’t make specimens fast enough but we can collect millions and millions of camera trap pictures to document this changing world.
Q: What have camera traps told us about coyotes in North Carolina?
A: We just had a paper published looking at the effect of hunting in wildlife species. Hunters don’t like coyotes, so they shoot them to try and keep the population down. What we found, counterintuitively, is that shooting coyotes actually increases their activity in the area. We found that by comparing state parks to state game lands – one allows hunting and the other one doesn’t. We found more coyote activity in the areas that were hunted. That wasn’t just North Carolina, that was across six states. We think it’s a social chaos. When territorial animals get killed, you get all these floaters that try to immigrate in to establish their own territory – you lose one coyote, you get four that try to take its place. Eventually that would settle out, but if you’re constantly killing coyotes, you’re constantly having this turnover and this influx of young coyotes coming in to try and stake their claim.
The other thing that we’ve been working on has been looking at coyotes in developed areas. We’ve been working with citizen scientists setting up camera traps in their backyards, in small woodlots and then larger places like Umstead Park. We’re still analyzing the data, but we definitely found that coyotes are in surprisingly urban areas. So many discoveries are being made by kids. Carroll Middle School, up by North Hills Mall, the kids in the science class ran a camera trap in this tiny little strip of woods between their track and this apartment building. They got a coyote in that place, right across the street from North Hills Mall. Even school kids can collect data that’s useful for scientists.
Q: You write about how essential hunters were in the development of camera traps. Can you talk about that?
A: There’s more hunters that run camera traps in the world than there are scientists, so a lot of the companies that are developing camera traps are not doing it for scientists, they’re doing it for the hunter market. Scientists are kind of riding the wave of the popularity of these things.
Hunters are interested in where the big bucks are, so that’s kind of what they’re focusing on. We have a new project coming up, it’s going to start in December, with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. We’re going to be asking hunters and other citizens to run camera traps all across the state to help us survey deer, coyotes, hogs, skunks, chipmunks, whatever we get on the cameras.
Q: What can camera traps do in dealing with poachers?
A: One of the last pages (of “Candid Creatures”) has a couple of examples of poachers. In some parts of the world, especially Asia and Africa, poaching is a huge problem. As the animals become more and more poached, they become more shy and more rare and it becomes more difficult to know if they’re still alive.
Q: What can you learn without a human presence?
A: We call (camera traps) noninvasive. Sometimes the animals do notice the cameras, and my book has a disproportional amount of animals looking right at the camera because those are the better pictures. If you look through a thousand camera trap pictures, usually the animals stroll right by and don’t look at the camera. A picture of a cougar butt isn’t nearly as interesting as a picture of a cougar face, so I tend to pick those.
If it was a person standing there, they would smell them or see them or notice them or run the other way. By being noninvasive we have no impact on the animal’s behavior and also can get better data.
Meet the author
What: Roland Kays presents “Candid Creatures: How Camera Traps Reveal the Mysteries of Nature”
Where: Quail Ridge Books, 4209-100 Lassiter Mill Road, Raleigh
When: 7 p.m. Aug. 16
Follow @camtraplive on Twitter for photos from two of Kays’ camera traps.
Learn more about Kays’ work at rolandkays.com.
Win the book
To win a copy of “Candid Creatures: How Camera Traps Reveal the Mysteries of Nature” ($39.95, Johns Hopkins University Press) by Roland Kays, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org by midnight Tuesday (Aug. 9) and include your mailing address. Please put “Candid” in the subject line of your email to be included in the random drawing. Only the winner will be notified.