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Science: Crittercam Technology

Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 29, 2007 11:00 AM

Washington Post staff writer Juliet Eilperin was online Monday, Oct. 29 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss how scientists are using cameras attached to animals to study their behavior and ecosystems.

The transcript follows.

Read more in today's story: New Insights From Creatures' Perspective, and watch a video of the Crittercam.

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Washington, D.C.: Have there been any attempts to train predators to track the number of prey they seek on a computer. The video camera is a great idea, but if one could fit a cheetah with a computer and train it to use it, I'd be most intrigued to find out how far they need to travel to catch how much prey in a given week. Ditto with the polar bears, if we could train them to detail ice melting and travel problems they faced, it would go a long way to understanding global warming. Training them to use cameras is a great idea for TV production, but science would be better served if they were entering data into databases.

Juliet Eilperin: When scientists track animals with Crittercams, they often include sensors that can capture scientific measurements, such as the depth an animal is diving or how far a terrestrial animal is moving. This gives researchers a more precise understanding of animals' movements.

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Washington, D.C.: Are the animals greatly harmed in the process of securing the cameras?

Thanks, Drake S.

Juliet Eilperin: No, the animals are not harmed in the process of wearing these cameras. In fact, when Greg Marshall first invented the Crittercam, he tried it out on a captive sea turtle and determined it had no effect on the animal's behavior. Researchers constantly check to see if the equipment is either hurting the animal in question and whether it is altering the animal's behavior, because that would skew the results of their studies and undermine their efforts to protect the species in question.

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The Palisades, D.C.: How much research goes into how the cameras will affect the animals? Are animals ever ostracized from their "communities" because they now have strange appendages?

Juliet Eilperin: I think the amount of research that goes into that question depends on the researchers, since each of these studies is being conducted by different scientific groups. But I don't know of a case of an animal being ostracized for wearing a Crittercam. That's not to say that they always love wearing the camera: in one instance a great white shark took a bite out of the camera, and as I wrote in my piece, the bear being studied in Yosemite who was wearing a Crittercam attached to a collar managed to pull the collar off within a few hours.

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Miami, Fla.: How small and expensive are they now? What about fish and marine invertebrates (shrimp)? If used on small wet critters how would they be attached? Any interesting retrieval stories...? How is the video stabilized on active critters? Eric

Juliet Eilperin: I'm checking on the price question, but I can tell you that they now weigh about 1.5 pounds, as I mentioned in my story, and I would say they're less than a foot long. You can't attach them to small animals like shrimp, of course, and they usually use suction cups to mount them on larger, wet marine animals.

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Juliet Eilperin: Readers might want to know that the National Geographic Museum currently has an exhibit on display through Jan. 2 called "National Geographic Crittercam: The World Through Animal Eyes," which shows some of the footage I describe in today's story.

The exhibit is based on research collaborations between National Geographic and scientists across the the globe, focusing on Crittercam's deployment on seals and sea lions, sharks, sea turtles, whales, penguins, bears and lions.

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Washington, D.C.: How do they get the cameras back from the animals? Do the cameras float, or do they send divers to rassle the camera's off the animals when they're done filming?

Juliet Eilperin: In terms of getting the cameras back from the animals, this depends on whether they are terrestrial or marine. For terrestrial animals, I know in at least some instances they retrieve them by using a radio transmitter to relocate them after the animal has taken off the collar. For marine, they use a system similar to one the one used by pop-off satellite tags, in which case the Crittercam pops off a few hours after it's put on, and then scientists retrive them by tracking the signals they send from their antenna.

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Juliet Eilperin: I'm going to sign off now, thanks for all the great questions.

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