Where The Wild Things Are

Researchers at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences are using camera traps, and enlisting citizen scientists, to study wild animal populations, behavior, habitat, and in a long term study, how human activity is affecting animal populations in a given area.

BURKE COUNTY - It’s a saying that is often repeated in photography, spoken by professionals and amateurs alike: “You have to be at the right place at the right time to get the good shot!”

And while it is usually true, a researcher at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences isn't listening.

Dr. Roland Kays is pioneering the use of camera traps in his wildlife research and, as you can imagine, animals don’t cooperate when getting their pictures taken. 

“These are battery powered. On the outside is the infrared flash, a motion censor and the camera lens,” says Kays, holding a camouflaged colored plastic box that holds the camera. He flips the latch and opens the device. “Inside is a bunch of batteries, and everything is stored on a memory card. And so we take it to the woods, turn it on, strap it to a tree, and leave it there for weeks.”

The images captured by the cameras are remarkable. Animals running, sniffing the camera, playing and even catching prey.

“The advantage of this technique is that it is completely non-invasive,” says Kays. “You don’t have to catch the animal, you just get whatever walks in front of the camera.”

But this isn’t about just snapping cool animal pictures. Camera traps, whether providing video or still images, provide a critical tool in wildlife studies. They allow researchers to track animal populations, identify species in a given area, assess population estimates, monitor wildlife behavior and draw animal distribution maps.  

And researchers can do all of those studies because camera traps provide pretty basic information. Biologists use the images to confirm what animals live in a given area. There is photographic proof, along with the date/time stamp, that an animal was in a specific place, at a specific time and on a specific date.

The first question Kays wants to answer with his cameras: what’s the effect of hiking and hunting on wildlife communities? 

“And so we give the cameras to volunteers, show them how to use them, give them locations and stratify them for our experiment,” adds Kays, pointing to his research locations on a map. “We are looking for areas that have similar habitat and similar animals and are close to each other, but one area hunted and one is not hunted.”

For the area of research focusing on the effects of hunting, Kays chose South Mountain State Park and South Mountain Game Lands in Burke County as one of his study locations. The areas are adjacent to each other with similar habitats and wildlife. Ten camera tests have been conducted in the area so far. There are five more scheduled.  

South Mountain State Park is also a research location for the hiking question in the story. The experiment places a camera on the trail, near the trail, and far from the trail. Other locations will also be used. 

In all, there are about 250 cameras in the field. They have been placed in roughly 1200 locations stretching from South Carolina to Maryland. They are all run by volunteers and have captured one and a half million photos. 

“In addition to the questions we hope to answer about hunting and hiking, we want to start a long-term monitoring program so we can see how things are changing over time and over space, in a big scale,” adds Kays. “That’s why we are using volunteers to run the traps because we can actually scale that up to a big project."

Kays says it’s too early to draw any conclusions from his camera research so far, but one fact is already clear.

Animals are smarter than you think.

“We’re definitely finding some animals are avoiding trails, especially coyotes and bobcats that are out at night,” Kays says smiling, as he shows me photos of the animals captured by the cameras. “They run the trails constantly at night, when there are no people, but during the daytime we don’t find them on the trails.”


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