The Science & The Art of Camera-Trapping

Posted by Robert Vennell @RobertVennell

From the very beginning, camera trap images have fascinated us.  In the 1890’s George Shiras III – “Grandfather Flash” – developed the first true camera-traps using trip wires and animal lures. When an animal triggered the wire it activated a magnesium flash gun that detonated in a blinding explosion of light that sent animals scattering in all directions. The images he captured were the first night-time wildlife photos ever created and revealed eerie snapshots of a hidden world.

George Shiras III - Camera Trap Photos

George Shiras III “Grandfather Flash” (top left) used a system of trip wires to capture animal photos as early as the 1890s. Source: National Geographic

In the past few decades camera traps have undergone a revolution as a scientific monitoring tool and advances in technology along with a huge reduction in price have led to an explosion in camera trap research. And yet camera traps remain unique as a monitoring tool as they not only collect valuable data, but they produce fascinating images that retain their power to amaze and inspire.

In this way, camera traps represent a unique blending of science and art. They allow us to investigate the natural world, but also package and present it in an engaging way. Raw data has never looked so delicious and interesting; arriving pre-wrapped in shiny packaging, immediately ready for consumption.

Raw data has never looked so delicious and interesting”

As such, camera-traps offer us a monumental opportunity for science communication. Anyone can immediately appreciate and understand the data – allowing us to bridge the gap between ‘experts’ and the public, and open up a dialogue about a range of different issues.

Wildlife Camera Trap Photo of The Year - BBC

Commended photos from the BBC Wildlife Photo of the Year Competition. Top left: Goitered gazelles by the Iranian Cheetah Society. Top right: Horned guan by Javier Rivas. Bottom left: Baby giant armadillo playing by Pantanal Giant Armadillo Project. Bottom right: Chimpanzees by ARTP and GRNP.

However, with such a unique opportunity it is important that we don’t get carried away with the art and forget about the science. It’s very easy to collect camera trap data – the hard part is knowing what to do with the data. What do the images of animals we collect actually mean? Do they simply provide evidence that a species exists in an area, or can we use them to ask deeper questions about whether or not our conservation actions are working?

“What do the images of animals we collect actually mean?”

This brings us to my research topic this year. I’m going to be studying feral pigs and the damage they cause to native forests by rooting up the undergrowth. I’ll be using camera-traps to monitor the abundance of feral pig populations – and will undoubtedly collect a vast amount of fascinating pictures. But I want those pictures to be as meaningful as possible.

Feral Pig, Hawkes Bay - Patrick Garvey

Feral pig in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand. Source: Patrick Garvey

In New Zealand conservation, the overwhelming majority of monitoring funding goes towards results-based monitoring – a “how many pigs did we kill?” mentality that doesn’t answer the more fundamental question of “did killing all those pigs actually achieve our goals?”.

What I hope to do is create a damage function that links the number of pigs on the cameras with the damage they cause to the environment. This should help managers around the country set meaningful targets for pig control that will help protect and restore native forests.

That’s the scientific message that I really want to communicate with my research, and luckily for me I’m going to be armed with arsenal of tasty visual treats to help me do it. I’ll be sure to share them with you as I go.

Robert Vennell - UOA.jpgRobert Vennell is an MSc student in the Centre of Biodiversity and Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. He is supervised by Margaret Stanley, Mark Mitchell (Auckland Council), Cheryl Krull (AUT) and Al Glen (Landcare Research). He also writes about the history, meaning and significance of New Zealand’s native tree species at

3 thoughts on “The Science & The Art of Camera-Trapping

  1. Pingback: Robert Vennell

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  3. Pingback: Hedgehogs: Prickly Pests on the Rampage | Ecology Ngātahi

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