'Critter cam' helps bear researchers

Reality TV for bruins

Posted: Friday, September 19, 2003

On a brushy hillside in the wilds of Chichagof Island, five excited scientists watched a brown bear cub reach out her paws and pull down a devil's club stalk. Her mouth appeared to be just inches away as she gingerly nibbled off the berries.

''She's very delicate with her lips,'' said state bear researcher LaVern Beier.

The bear was in a stream bottom half a mile away, but the view was up close and personal, transmitted from a tiny video camera mounted in a collar around the bear's neck. The researchers were clustered around a monitor at a makeshift hillside outpost.

The ''critter cam'' was deployed by a three-man crew from National Geographic Television, working with Alaska Department of Fish and Game bear researchers Steve Lewis and LaVern Beier. Fish and Game has been studying the bears of northeast Chichagof Island, about 40 miles west of Juneau, since 1989. The joint team spent 10 days in August working to get the cub's-eye view of the world.

''Animal-borne imaging shows you things you can't normally observe,'' said Greg Marshall, a biologist and producer for National Geographic who developed the systems he calls critter cams. ''It lets you see how an animal uses its habitat away from humans and uninfluenced by human presence. Natural behavior that's the fundamental concept.''

''The perspective is almost like a video game, where the player sees the world like the character in the game,'' said wildlife biologist Steve Lewis. The bear's muzzle appears a few inches away in the top left edge of the frame and serves as a reference.

''You see her claws digging, scraping out a day bed or reaching down to pull out the base of skunk cabbage,'' Marshall said.

Marshall approached Beier and Fish and Game three years ago about teaming up to test Marshall's prototype bear cam. Trained as a marine biologist, Marshall spent 10 years developing animal-borne imaging systems for marine animals, and for the past three years, he and engineer Dave Rasch have worked on systems for terrestrial animals.

Marshall has put critter cams on marlin, humpback whales, monk seals and sperm whales, and he's producing 13 episodes of a half-hour program featuring these projects for National Geographic Television. The series, which includes an episode on humpback whales in Southeast Alaska, is scheduled to air next year.

Marshall flew to Hoonah with engineers Dave Rasch and Allan Lignon in mid-August to accompany Beier and Lewis into the field. The state researchers planned to sedate and equip 24 wild adult brown bears with GPS tracking collars as part of the ongoing Chichagof brown bear study.

On Aug. 20, the team trapped a 160-pound female that was unsuitable for the tracking collar but perfect for the critter cam. Beier, who has worked with bears for 25 years and has captured and handled more than 700 of the animals, guessed the bear was about 3 years old. She was still part of a family group, offering a look at the behavior of other bears and the interactions between the bears.

Within a half-hour of waking up the big cub rejoined her mother and two siblings.

''At the very first the mother bear came in and checked out the camera. You could see her face come in, look over the collar, then she went on,'' Marshall said.

After that initial once-over, the bears ignored the collar. ''I have 99 percent confidence the collar has no effect on behavior,'' Marshall said.

The camera and microphone are in a waterproof box at the base of the collar, with an antenna at the top. Back at the monitor, the crew used remote controls to turn the camera on and off. The entire unit with batteries weighs just over 3 pounds, about 2 percent of the bear's weight.

The lithium batteries could supply power for 30 hours of nonstop operation, but the plan was to check in for four minutes every half hour, and continued watching depending on the activity. They began at 5:15 a.m. and switched off about 9:15 p.m. The low-light-sensitive, black-and-white camera broadcast real-time images, which the team recorded as digital video.

One morning, the cub started her day digging and eating skunk cabbage. Then she headed down to a stream to catch fish, and later sprawled out in the sun for a nap. Over the four-day period, the family group regularly moved between mid-elevation avalanche slopes and the stream bottom.

''She was good at fishing,'' Marshall said. ''At one point it appeared that she took a salmon away from one of her siblings. We speculated maybe she's the dominant cub. Just seeing her daily routine, feeding, foraging, resting, would've been fascinating enough, but to see these social interactions is icing on the cake.''

''One time we turned it on and it was black, and we were worried, but then you could hear her breathing, the regular rhythm,'' said engineer Allan Lignon, who serves as a troubleshooter for the team in the field. ''She was laying on the camera and it was facing into the dirt.''

Fortunately, as the cub moved through the undergrowth of the Southeast rain forest the damp leaves cleaned the lens.

Marshall said the transmitter broadcasts a signal about two miles if there's a clear line of sight, or about a half-mile in the rain forest of Chichagof Island. To tune in, the operator aims a handheld antenna in the direction of the bear. Beier said the reception varies between good and lousy.

''You're at the mercy of the antennae,'' he said. ''It's like fiddling with the rabbit ears on the TV when you were a kid. If she goes behind a big hill or rock or something, you get snow. But when it's good, it's very good.''

After four days, the team triggered the remote release and dropped the collar. Using VHF telemetry equipment it took Beier and Marshall less than 15 minutes to retrieve the expensive instrument from the forest floor. Marshall and his team headed back to Washington, D.C., Aug. 26 and left for Kenya on Sept. 3 to test the same instrument on a spotted hyena.

The success with the bear camera is encouraging Marshall and his crew to pursue the development of smaller systems for use with wolves, elk, wolverines, lynx and marten.

''We're actually designing a system for eagles,'' he said. ''An eagle cam for viewing remote images from flying birds.''

Marshall is excited about the potential applications for these systems.

''There's a huge opportunity out there to gain insight into habitat ecology, behavior how animals are interacting, how they defend territory, how they are foraging,'' he said. ''We don't even know what questions to ask yet because we haven't been there.''

Riley Woodford works for the Division of Wildlife Conservation at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.



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