This is National Wildlife Week, an annual celebration of the beauty and diversity of America’s wildlife. Started in 1938, this event encourages people across the country to learn about what they can do to protect at-risk species—including various amphibians, birds, insects and mammals—and to participate in conservation efforts.
This year, the focus for the week, which runs from April 5–9, is virtual engagement—fitting for a year of animal studies that have had to rely on virtual tools due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But far from being “the next-best-thing to being there,” virtual tools are increasingly proving that they have advantages that are beyond those from more traditional wildlife-tracking measures—and that, perhaps even more importantly, they cause less stress to the animals we wish to protect and understand.
More distance equals less stress
In February 2020, just as the coronavirus pandemic was spreading worldwide, the results of a pilot study undertaken by researchers from the University of South Australia at Adelaide Zoo showed that they had developed an effective, new way to conduct basic health checks of wildlife using a digital camera, saving the animals the stress of being anesthetized.
The researchers filmed nine Adelaide Zoo species—an African lion, alpaca, little blue penguin, giant panda, Sumatran tiger, hamadryas baboon, koala, orangutan and red kangaroo—up to 130 feet away for three minutes with a high-resolution digital camera installed on a tripod. The camera picked up tiny movements in the animals’ chest cavities that indicated heart and breathing rates. There was no physical contact with the animals, and their daily routines were not disrupted.
Previously, monitoring vital signs of wild animals involved using specialized equipment and capture or restraints. But this experiment showed that digital cameras can successfully extract cardiopulmonary signals from animals in a zoo setting.
The scientists say that while the technique needs refining and more validation, it does demonstrate that wild animals on open ranges and in natural areas might soon be candidates for remote monitoring for signs of poor health, allowing for earlier detection of illnesses and fewer unconscious trips to a veterinarian. It will also save researchers from the difficult, labor-intensive process of physically trapping, handling and releasing wild animals.
Low-maintenance cameras plus zero animal processing
Being able to monitor the health of wild animals from a distance by camera isn’t the only beneficial discovery made regarding wildlife during the coronavirus pandemic. A brand-new study from the University of Utah shows the importance of trail cameras for wildlife conservation and management.
Trail cameras (also called “camera traps”) are motion-activated cameras that researchers can attach to a pole or tree in remote areas. The cameras then take photos whenever something passes by. Some models transmit photos wirelessly, but many collect photos on an SD (secure digital) card, which researchers switch periodically when they change the cameras’ batteries. Trail cams can also be programmed to record video, which often results in fascinating vignettes of the hidden lives of wild animals.
For scientists, especially graduate students who conduct fieldwork on a timeline, every day matters. So, in spring 2020 when COVID-19 hit and many universities suspended in-person activities—including fieldwork—the collective anxiety across academia grew large.
But for one doctoral student at The University of Utah School of Biological Sciences, Austin Green, that concern was tempered by the knowledge that despite a pandemic, his network of automated, motion-activated trail cameras would continue to keep watch over the birds and mammals in the canyons of the Wasatch Range. Green’s 300 trail cams have captured images of cougars, coyotes, herons, moose and turkeys from as far north as Logan, Utah, to as far south as Point of the Mountain, a 103-mile stretch.
In fact, there were entire nationwide and global initiatives that were able to continue gathering data during pandemic restrictions on field research. Green and his colleagues are now sharing what they’ve learned about the importance of trail cameras for wildlife conservation and management—beyond mere surveys—in the journal Biological Conservation. As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, they write, automatic trail cameras are excellent tools for a wide range of environments and research questions.
Research opportunities minus boots on the ground
Trail cams are well suited for fundamental research questions, such as investigating the presence, relative abundance, density, range and activity of animal species. They can be instrumental in discovering new species and trends in behavior. During the pandemic, they fostered some unique research opportunities, such as the sudden change in human traffic—deemed by scientists as the “anthropause”—and how wildlife reacts to changes in human influences.
But, we now know that trail cameras can also perform an important conservation function. While conservationists, the general public, rangers and others often had to stay home due to mandatory shelter-in-place regulations, poachers, illegal loggers and trespassers continued to go into wild areas. During the lockdowns, and to this day in many places, trail cameras are our only, real “boots on the ground.”
And, while more cameras are better, even a single camera can yield valuable information.
Mammals multiplied in metro areas
I can give you one recent example of the value of virtual tools in wildlife conservation. According to the National Wildlife Federation, wildlife is often more abundant and diverse in suburban neighborhoods than in nearby wild places.
In a recent study of residential backyards in North Carolina, researchers set up cameras with motion sensors in 58 suburban yards. For comparison, they also placed cameras in local forests and in other rural sites.
Examining images recorded during an eight-month period, the scientists identified seven mammal species that appeared more frequently in people’s yards than in surrounding woods, including gray and red foxes, Virginia opossums and eastern cottontail rabbits.
Publishing their results in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, the scientists explained that bird feeders and other supplemental food sources, along with opportunities for shelter, are the key factors that attract wildlife to the suburbs. That means that decisions by homeowners can have a big impact on wildlife living in their areas.
During National Wildlife Week this year, I encourage you to visit nwf.org/nationalwildlifeweek to learn how you can make a difference for animals and be a voice—virtually and otherwise—for the wildlife you love to watch.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,