• Creature Feature
    Crittercam helps scientists study Hawaiian monk seals, a critically endangered species.

    Photograph by Greg Marshall

    New Knowledge
    Crittercam really fills in some extremely fine details that none of the other indirect evidencedive recorders or satellite tagsgive you about what exactly that animal was doing.
    Kyler Abernathy, director of research for National Geographic's Remote Imaging Project

    March of the Crittercam
    Crittercams outfitted on emperor penguins provided underwater footage in March of the Penguins, the 2005 Oscar-winning documentary.

    By Stuart Thornton

    Thursday, June 30, 2011

    As a biologist researching monk seals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in 1995, Kyler Abernathy was skeptical about Crittercam. Crittercam, which can record video and audio as well as collect other data, is a camera attached to a wild animal.

    Greg Marshall, vice president of National Geographic’s Remote Imaging Program, wanted to attach Crittercams to some of the seals Abernathy was studying.

    After helping Marshall capture a few seals to be fitted with Crittercams, Abernathy waited to see what footage and data might turn up on the device. He didn’t expect much.

    “Then the seal came back,” Abernathy says. “We got the camera and looked at the video. It completely overturned everything I thought about how these seals hunted their food and caught their prey. It made me think that ‘Wow, there is some real value in this.’ That’s really proved itself out over the years on all the different animals.”

    At the time, Abernathy thought monk seals fed on bountiful schools of fish that swam around the reefs.

    “The Crittercam showed that the seals did not feed in the shallow reefs at all,” he says. “They swam outside of these shallow reefs down to much deeper habitats.”

    Three years later, Abernathy joined National Geographic’s Remote Imaging Program, where he is currently the director of research. Abernathy says the mission of the Remote Imaging Program is to develop unique imaging tools—including Crittercam—for research and conservation projects.

    “The Crittercam has just over the years been a great majority of what we’ve done,” he says. “I mean, that covers a broad swath of things. Over the years, Crittercam has been many kinds of cameras, because the technology has evolved, so that word covers a lot of devices. We use that term to generally refer to cameras that we are actually going to put on wild animals.”

    Animal Attachments

    One of the greatest difficulties for the Remote Imaging Program is determining the best way to actually attach a Crittercam to a wild animal. Wanting to record the creature’s natural behavior, the program does not want the Crittercam to disturb the animal in any way.

    Crittercams stick to whales, dolphins, and leatherback turtles by a special suction cup. On a penguin, the device is secured with a backpack-like harness.

    “The attachments are more challenging than I think a lot of people realize, because a lot of people focus on the cameras themselves, which are amazing tools, but you do have to get it on the animal to get anything out of it,” Abernathy says.

    An unexpected animal provided the program with one of its biggest obstacles. “One of the ones that was amazingly and surprisingly frustrating was manatees,” Abernathy says. “It’s one I think caught us all by surprise, because they are big, lumpy, docile animals for the most part.”

    Eventually, after trying suction cups, glue, and various harness designs, the team came up with a solution—a belt that suspended a camera above the manatee by a nylon rod.

    Eric Berkenpas, the lead engineer for the Remote Imaging Program, says he found it difficult to attach Crittercams to another marine animal: the great white shark. Berkenpas helped design a way to attach the Crittercam without injuring the fish.

    “We came up with a fin clamp that snaps around the dorsal fin that will release and won’t hurt the shark at all,” he says.

    This made for an intense experience for Berkenpas, who attempted to attach the Crittercams to great whites with a pole from an ocean vessel floating off Mexico’s Guadalupe Island.

    “What we had to do was basically bait them to come to the boat,” he says. “Once the shark commits to grabbing onto the bait, it closes its eyes for a split second and opens its mouth. At that point, it’s completely oblivious to everything else, and that’s when you have to get the camera on.”

    Creating Crittercam

    The idea for the Crittercam came in 1986, when marine biologist Greg Marshall was diving off the coast of Belize. On one particular dive, Marshall watched a shark pass by with a remora fish suctioned onto its belly. Marshall thought if he could make a non-intrusive camera that attached to a shark like a remora, he could observe the shark’s natural behavior.

    Abernathy says that in Crittercam’s early years, it was used exclusively on marine animals.

    “Greg is a marine biologist, so his real initial interest was trying to study marine animals with this device,” he says. “Because it’s so hard for people to access that marine world, and we’ve seen so little of these animals’ lives, there are potentially huge gaps in our knowledge.”

    Abernathy says the main hurdle to the development of the terrestrial Crittercam was the weight of the device, which was not as great a factor in the water. In 2003, the first terrestrial Crittercam was tested on an African lion. Terrestrial Crittercams have now been attached to lions, hyenas, and grizzly bears.

    On marine animals, Crittercams can detach using a pre-programmed release mechanism. The Crittercams, which have ultrasonic signalers and radio transmitters, can then be found on the surface by researchers with tracking devices.

    “We go to extreme measures to try and get these things back,” Berkenpas says. “The cameras themselves are pretty valuable, but the most valuable thing is the footage that the camera might have on it.”

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    bait Noun

    object used to attract something.

    behavior Noun

    anything an organism does involving action or response to stimulation.

    biologist Noun

    scientist who studies living organisms.

    bountiful Adjective

    plentiful.

    broad Adjective

    wide or expansive.

    capture Verb

    to take or control.

    coast Noun

    edge of land along the sea or other large body of water.

    Encyclopedic Entry: coast
    conservation Noun

    management of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction, or neglect.

    Encyclopedic Entry: conservation
    Crittercam Noun

    camera designed to be worn on a wild animal, providing a "critter-eye view" of the animal's environment.

    data Plural Noun

    (singular: datum) information collected during a scientific study.

    detach Verb

    to break apart from something else.

    docile Adjective

    gentle and easily led.

    dolphin Noun

    marine mammal related to the whale, but smaller and always toothed.

    dorsal fin Noun

    appendage protruding from the back of many aquatic fishes and mammals.

    engineer Noun

    person who plans the building of things, such as structures (construction engineer) or substances (chemical engineer).

    evolve Verb

    to develop new characteristics based on adaptation and natural selection.

    footage Noun

    moving images recorded by video or motion picture cameras.

    great white shark Noun

    large shark native to temperate ocean waters.

    grizzly bear Noun

    large mammal native to North America.

    habitat Noun

    environment where an organism lives throughout the year or for shorter periods of time.

    Encyclopedic Entry: habitat
    hunt Verb

    to pursue and kill an animal, usually for food.

    hyena Noun

    predatory mammal native to Africa and Asia.

    imaging tool Noun

    device used to obtain, analyze, and study visual data.

    initial Adjective

    first.

    intense Adjective

    extreme or strong.

    leatherback turtle Noun

    critically endangered sea turtle.

    lion Noun

    large cat native to sub-Saharan Africa and Gir Forest National Park, India.

    manatee Noun

    threatened marine mammal native to the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean.

    marine Adjective

    having to do with the ocean.

    marine biologist Noun

    scientist who studies ocean life.

    mechanism Noun

    process or assembly that performs a function.

    monk seal Noun

    critically endangered species of marine mammal.

    nylon Noun

    type of plastic (polymer) that can be made into fabric.

    oblivious Adjective

    completely unaware.

    obstacle Noun

    something that slows or stops progress.

    ocean vessel Noun

    ship, boat, submarine, or other vehicle able to travel the ocean.

    penguin Noun

    bird native to the Antarctic.

    prey Noun

    animal that is hunted and eaten by other animals.

    radio transmitter Noun

    device that sends out sound signals.

    reef Noun

    a ridge of rocks, coral, or sand rising from the ocean floor all the way to or near the ocean's surface.

    remora Noun

    fish with a suction cup on its head, to attach to animals such as sharks and turtles.

    remote imaging Noun

    process of studying an object and gaining information about it, without ever coming into direct contact with the object.

    secure Verb

    to guarantee, or make safe and certain.

    swath Noun

    path or line of material.

    technology Noun

    the science of using tools and complex machines to make human life easier or more profitable.

    terrestrial Adjective

    having to do with the Earth or dry land.

    unique Adjective

    one of a kind.

    whale Noun

    largest marine mammal species.

Tell us what you think