Camera traps reveal mysteries of nature

Roland Kays
Roland Kays

Microscopes and telescopes help scientists study things too small or far away to see with the naked eye. Camera traps help zoologists study animals too shy or elusive to see with their own eyes. By recording all animals that have walked through its field of view in previous weeks, these motion sensitive cameras also allow scientists to see back in time. The often beautifully candid pictures and capture a unique perspective on wildlife to help document which species are found in which parts of the world.

On my computer I have a folder of “greatest hits” camera trap pictures. This holds a few dozen of my favorite images, selected from the millions of camera trap pictures my research has collected over the years. The average camera trap picture is not that good, often just the rear end of a raccoon, or a blurry squirrel zipping by. But every once in a while you get a picture that really catches your attention, such as a deer staring right into the lens while chewing a leaf, or a predator carrying prey in its mouth. I often use these pictures in my lectures to help explain what my research has discovered.

Sharing interesting animal pictures is a favorite pastime of camera trappers, and as I talk with fellow scientists, I realized that there was a treasure trove of unique animal pictures scattered among our “greatest hits” folders. I decided to collect the best of these pictures and use them in a book that shows this unique perspective on nature while also describing the scientific discoveries that resulted from the research.

Writing this book was a blast because I got to look through so many amazing pictures. After reading an interesting scientific paper I would write the author and ask if there were any pictures I could use in the book to help describe the results of their research. They would typically share a few dozen pictures with me and I would pick one or two to include in the book. The result was overwhelmingly supportive, and the book includes more than 600 images collected by 152 researchers from 54 different countries around the world.

The motivation behind most of this research is to help conserve wildlife. Animal populations are getting squeezed out as humans impact more and more of the planet. Camera traps help scientists understand which species live where, and create solutions that allow humans and wild animals to coexist. I hope that by collecting these research stories and amazing pictures, this book will help the cause to save these shy, elusive species that most of us will never get to see with our own eyes, but can still enjoy through camera trapping.

Dr. Roland Kays (@RolandKays) is a zoologist at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and N.C. State University. He will sign copies of his new book “Candid Creatures: How Camera Traps Reveal the Mysteries of Nature” at the Museum’s Science Café on June 9 at 7 p.m.