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New Insights From Creatures' Perspective

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 29, 2007

Two decades ago, Greg Marshall was diving off the reefs of Belize studying queen conchs when he noticed a reef shark passing by with a remora clinging to its belly. The thought occurred to Marshall, who was then a graduate student in marine environmental science, that if a camera could be attached to a shark the way the parasitic fish was, he'd have a means to observe some of the most elusive creatures on Earth.

"It was one of those epiphanic moments in life," recalled Marshall, who now works as a scientist and filmmaker at National Geographic magazine. "I thought, 'I need to make it look like and feel like a remora.' "

Marshall has spent 20 years pursuing that vision: creating an animal-borne recorder known as Crittercam, which evolved into a remote-imaging program based at National Geographic that seeks to capture images, sound and data from the perspective of a variety of animals.

The first device that Marshall created in 1987 weighed more than six pounds; in its current incarnation, it weighs a little less than 1.5 pounds and is 2.25 inches in diameter. While it's not nearly as small as an iPhone, most sizable animals don't seem to mind it.

Since Crittercam's invention, researchers have attached the devices to more than 50 species of marine, terrestrial and flying creatures, including great white sharks, black bears and Hawaiian monk seals. More than 30 scientific groups in academia and government -- in agencies including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Agriculture Department -- use Marshall's invention to collect data and develop wildlife policy.

Over the past 15 years, the devices have produced a number of significant new insights, revealing, for instance, that black sea turtles off Baja California are omnivores rather than vegetarians, and that male harbor seals make a "bubbly growl" when defending their offshore territories.

"Crittercams are bringing a new dimension to NOAA research, because they help our scientists see the ecosystem through the eyes of the animal. We're able to go where the animal goes," said NOAA Administrator Conrad C. Lautenbacher. "Crittercams also help connect the public more directly with what is going on under water, putting them in touch with a rich environment that most people never see."

John Calambokidis, a marine biologist with Cascadia Research Collective, a nonprofit group that studies imperiled marine mammals, has used Crittercam to capture the sounds of blue whales, which make a "pulsing rumble" -- the loudest noise made by any animal on Earth -- to attract mates.

"Here's an animal that spends 90 to 95 percent of its time underwater," Calambokidis said. Without Crittercam, "I'd only get to study them while they're at the surface."

Between 1999 and 2004, Calambokidis and his colleagues attached Crittercams to whales 30 to 40 times off the coast of California and Mexico, capturing nearly 100 hours of video, sound and depth recordings. The equipment showed that blue whales were diving about 900 feet deep in an "up and down" pattern, he said, most likely as part of a feeding routine.

Just as important, the recorders captured the long, loud sound that male blue whales make when they are seeking a female whale.

"You are the whale," Calambokidis said, playing a video on his laptop that showed the whale's perspective as it emitted a sort of rhythmic noise, and bobbed up and down through the ocean before speeding off.

Attaching the device to a massive whale is not always easy, as the mammals are wary of humans. Calambokidis and his fellow researchers relied on a small, fast boat that got them close enough to extend a 12-foot fishing pole, on which dangled a Crittercam with large suction cups. At first, they had only a 10 percent success rate attaching the recorders, but now they do better than 50 percent.

"It took us a while to have the proper approach technique," Calambokidis said, adding that the video and sound recording have greatly enhanced scientists' understanding of blue whale breeding behavior.

Even when scientists manage to attach the camera, there's no guarantee it will stay there.

Four years ago, Stewart Breck, a research wildlife biologist at the Agriculture Department's National Wildlife Research Center in Fort Collins, Colo., attached a collar holding a Crittercam to a 200-pound, young adult black bear in Yosemite National Park for a study of how bears forage. Beck and his colleagues retrieved three hours of footage that showed the bear trying to break into campers' food lockers -- until the bear managed to pull the collar over its head and toss it away.

"It was a bear just notorious for being able to pull collars off," Breck said. "But they're not all like that."

Other animals have been more accommodating. Between 1995 and 2000, NOAA scientists deployed Crittercams on 44 endangered Hawaiian monk seals at French Frigate Shoals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, and the footage has reshaped their understanding of how the seals feed.

After discovering that the seals feed on the deep slopes of the atoll rather than just in its shallow reefs, and that the animals can flip boulders over underwater to reach fish and other prey beneath, NOAA officials are rethinking how best to protect the seals' habitat.

Researchers have also used Crittercams to wage public relations campaigns aimed at humans. After capturing spectacular underwater footage by attaching cameras three dozen times to the backs of black sea turtles, Jeffrey A. Seminoff, an ecologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, held "movie nights" in the Mexican town of Bahia de los Angeles to persuade local residents not to eat the turtles.

"This is a community where you could drive down the street and smell turtles cooking in pots," Seminoff said. "We gave them a sea turtle eye's view of habitat that's outside their back yards. We had a campaign: each month, release one turtle. I think the Crittercam helped us achieve that."

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