article / 18 July 2016

Camera traps reveal mysteries of nature

Sharing personal 'best of' animal pictures is a favorite pastime of many camera trappers. A prolific camera trapper himself, Roland Kays has pulled together more than 600 images collected by 152 researchers from 54 different countries around the world in a new book called 'Candid Creatures: How Camera Traps Reveal the Mysteries of Nature'. 

Microscopes and telescopes help scientists study things too small or far away to see with the naked eye. Camera traps help zoologists study animals too shy or elusive to see with their own eyes. By recording all animals that have walked through its field of view in previous weeks, these motion sensitive cameras also allow scientists to see back in time. The often beautifully candid pictures and capture a unique perspective on wildlife to help document which species are found in which parts of the world.

On my computer I have a folder of “greatest hits” camera trap pictures. This holds a few dozen of my favorite images, selected from the millions of camera trap pictures my research has collected over the years. The average camera trap picture is not that good, often just the rear end of a raccoon, or a blurry squirrel zipping by. But every once in a while you get a picture that really catches your attention, such as a deer staring right into the lens while chewing a leaf, or a predator carrying prey in its mouth. I often use these pictures in my lectures to help explain what my research has discovered.

The short-eared dog of the Amazon preys on small mammals but, as shown by this photo, also takes advantage of ripe fruit when it’s available. (Credit: Renata Pitman)

Two tuskers fight in front of a camera trap. The social structure of forest elephants includes smaller social groups than that of bush elephants, to which these males are presumably fighting for access. (Credit: Laila Bahaa-el-din, Panthera)

Sharing interesting animal pictures is a favorite pastime of camera trappers, and as I talk with fellow scientists, I realized that there was a treasure trove of unique animal pictures scattered among our “greatest hits” folders. I decided to collect the best of these pictures and use them in a book that shows this unique perspective on nature while also describing the scientific discoveries that resulted from the research.

Writing this book was a blast because I got to look through so many amazing pictures. After reading an interesting scientific paper I would write the author and ask if there were any pictures I could use in the book to help describe the results of their research. They would typically share a few dozen pictures with me and I would pick one or two to include in the book. The result was overwhelmingly supportive, and the book includes more than 600 images collected by 152 researchers from 54 different countries around the world.

Poachers in a Tennessee state park wear masks so the camera trap won’t allow authorities to identify them. These men are poaching ginseng root by digging up a small understory plant, which can be seen stuffed into the shirt of the man to the left. Ginseng is grown commercially, but wild plants still fetch up to $800 per pound. This has fueled an illegal overharvest that threatens the survival of many wild ginseng populations in the Appalachian Mountains. (Credit: eMammal)

A pack of dholes reconnoiter in the Western Ghats of India. (Credit: Girish Punjabi)


The motivation behind most of this research is to help conserve wildlife. Animal populations are getting squeezed out as humans impact more and more of the planet. Camera traps help scientists understand which species live where, and create solutions that allow humans and wild animals to coexist. I hope that by collecting these research stories and amazing pictures, this book will help the cause to save these shy, elusive species that most of us will never get to see with our own eyes, but can still enjoy through camera trapping.

Candid Creatures Book Cover

About the Author

Roland Kays

Roland Kays is a zoologist with a broad interest in ecology and conservation, especially of mammals. Roland is a leader of the eMammal project, a data management system and archive for camera trap research projects. He has worked on a number of methodological innovations including a way to measure the area surveyed by a camera trap, a way to estimate the total daily activity level from camera trap pictures, a new statistical technique to account for species interaction and spatial autocorrelation, and automating the identification of animals from camera trap images through computer vision.

This article first appeared in the News Observer and was republished with permission from the author.

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