Where the Wild Things Are

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.

And while any photograph is cool, if it happens to be of an animal that is endangered or difficult to spot, the picture becomes even more valuable.

But while the research is new, the irony is that the use of camera traps really isn’t.

Camera Trapping was actually invented about 120 years ago. Dig around in the history of photography and you’ll find the name George Shiras. Shiras lived in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, but he was serving one term in the U.S. House of Representatives. He agreed to do it to help a reform movement in his native Pennsylvania. Shiras was on the Public Lands Committee. Even though he wasn’t in Washington for long, his work helped create several National Monuments as well as extend Yellowstone National Park. 

While President Theodore Roosevelt praised Shiras for his legislative work, the one-term Congressman may be better known for his work with a camera.

Gil Grosvenor, the Director and Editor of the National Geographic Society and its magazine, noticed Shiras’ work. In July 1906, 74 of his photos were published under the title “Hunting Wild Game With Flashlight and Camera." The issue was so popular it was reprinted. Shiras and the Society worked together for years.

In fact, President Roosevelt contacted Shiras again, asking him to write a book with his photos. Thirty years later, Shiras and National Geographic published a book, “Hunting Wild Life with Camera.”

What made the article and the book so revolutionary was that nobody had ever seen photographs quite like it.

So how did he do it?

Shiras attached a hunk of bait to a trip wire, which the photographer would pull to open the shutter and at the same time, ignite the flash. The flash back then was essentially a bright magnesium flare. That’s right - a bright, loud, powder flash, lighting up the area. In most cases, the rule of thumb was the more light, the better the photo.

Of course, animals aren’t going to visit areas where people are standing with pull strings ready to take their picture.

So Shiras decided to tie a piece of bait to the string. When the animal grabbed the bait and started to run away, it would pull the string, ignite the flash, and snap the photo. 

It provided a first ever window into the secret lives of animals, which were no longer quite so secret.

- Frank Graff

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on North Carolina Science Now, a weekly science series that airs Wednesdays, beginning in August 2013, as part of North Carolina Now on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!

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