James C. Nifong, University of Florida
Video recorded by a Crittercam unit attached to a 2.6-meter American alligator helps researchers understand the animal's behavioral patterns.
March 14, 2012 -
Wildlife photographer Will Burrard-Lucas prefers to take close, wide-angle shots of animals from the ground. Usually he'd quietly crawl up to them, but that would be too dangerous when shooting lions in the wild. So he started building a prototype for a mobile camera called "BeetleCam" because it resembles a large beetle as it moves and offers a beetle-like perspective. Photo: A lion biting a 'beetlecam'
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With help from his brother Matt (right), Burrard-Lucas mounted a Canon EOS 400D on top of an off-the-shelf robot chassis. The "buggy" was stuffed with large batteries and rigged so that the camera connected to the steering controls. The first BeetleCam was sealed, camouflaged, and its center of gravity moved lower for better stability. Burrard-Lucas was ready to test it in Tanzania's Ruaha and Katavi National Parks.
On the morning of their first day out, the brothers took advantage of the warm light to capture elephants with the BeetleCam prototype. "We used it first on elephants and it worked really well," Burrard-Lucas said. The next day they decided to try it with lions.
What happened next was obvious in retrospect, Burrard-Lucas said. Curious about the mobile camera, a lioness picked it up and dragged it away. Fortunately the brothers were able to see where she dropped the mangled device. "Because there was no protection on it in those days, her teeth went straight through the camera and broke it," Burrard-Lucas said. They patched up the device, popped in another camera, and for the rest of the trip concentrated on elephants and buffalo instead.
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Back in London, Will Burrard-Lucas set to work developing a new BeetleCam, this time custom-building much of it from scratch. "It took two years but eventually I found time to build what I hoped would be a lion-proof version," he said. This latest version (right), equipped with a Canon 550D camera, had better armor than the original. He also constructed a second, larger mobile camera (left) with a live video feed, HD movie recording, and a Canon 1Ds MK III digital camera that he dubbed "BeetleCam Mark II."
When the brothers returned to Africa in 2011, they traveled to the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. This time the new BeetleCam had a carapace built out of fiberglass that was reinforced with aluminum struts. "I hoped it would be lion-proof and it did prove to be able to withstand the odd bite here and there," Burrard-Lucas said.
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The brothers drove around the Masai Mara looking for lions. When they found some they deployed the BeetleCams. Lowering them out the vehicle's far window, away from where the lions were, usually worked quite well, Burrard-Lucas said. They frequently used the smaller armored camera to test the conditions. When the lion was distracted or not interested in the camera, then they risked rolling in the more expensive BeetleCam for higher quality photographs.
To control the BeetleCam remotely, Burrard-Lucas used a model airplane controller that has forward, back and steering capabilities. The airplane throttle was repurposed to tilt the camera lens up and down. A switch usually intended to raise and lower landing gear became the camera trigger. "I used the different channels to control different parts of the BeetleCam," he said.
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The adult lions were predictably unpredictable, choosing to ignore the BeetleCam completely and then all of a sudden they would get up and bite it. Lion cubs, on the other hand, were usually playful and curious with the camera, Burrard-Lucas said. "They could tell which side the front was, and would try to get round behind to flip it over."
Although he uses the video camera, Burrard-Lucas said he considers himself more of a photographer than a videographer. "It's the art form and it's just what I enjoy doing," he said. "This approach allows me to get my images in front of a lot of people." In this photo, he used BeetleCam to capture a close-up of a male lion eating a wildebeest.
Burrard-Lucas continues to look for unique perspectives. The way wildlife photography is going, professionals need to come up with innovative ideas in order to take photos that haven't been seen before, he said. "In wildlife photography, once a few thousand photos of lions have been taken, you have to really try quite hard to get something fresh."
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Using the dual BeetleCam approach has improved Burrard-Lucas' ability to compose shots instead of just crossing his fingers. Especially now that he's figured out how to transmit live, HD video from the BeetleCam's GoPro camera. "I can improve my success rate and make sure I can get the composition better rather than using a hit and miss approach," he said.
The wildlife photographer said he tends to think of a project or an animal he'd like to photograph and then goes about trying to build the tools that will enable him to get those shots. Next, we could be seeing a flying BeetleCam. "I might be doing something along the lines of a mini-helicopter version for aerial shots," he said.
Currently Burrard-Lucas is busy building BeetleCams for other wildlife photographers. He says a couple of them are planning to use the mobile camera to approach bears. "I'm giving them the same armor that lions had," he said. "We'll see if lions or bears turn out to be more destructive." To see video footage and additional photos from the BeetleCam project, visit Burrard-lucas.com/beetlecam.
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Chomp, chomp. An inconspicuous — albeit with a camera on its back — alligator slithers through a lake stalking and capturing nearby prey, then surfaces to crush and swallow it.
This gator is one of a group of camera-toting American alligators that are revealing some surprising insights about their foraging behaviors in two coastal regions in Florida, scientists report in a new study.
The resulting video footage revealed that the cryptic predators hunt most often at night, even though the probability of a successful catch is highest during the morning hours. [See Video of the Alligators Stalking Prey]
"We discovered that alligators forage at all times of the day, but increasingly during the night and evening hours, however they were most successful in the morning and while attacking prey below the surface," said the researchers, James Nifong from the University of Florida and colleagues, in a statement.
In the past, scientists have relied on stomach contents of alligators, direct observations of captured animals or indirect methods such as calculating metabolic needs of the animal to understand their preying behavior and the potential impact they have on their surrounding ecosystem.
But these methods may not produce accurate predictions, or answer all questions regarding alligators' daily lives, the researchers said. That's why the researchers turned to the National Geographic Society's Crittercams, which have piggybacked on more than 60 species, including penguins and jumbo squids, to capture their daily activities.
In the new study, the researchers attached these cameras onto 15 adult alligators from Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and Guana River in coastal Florida. The alligators were detained for about 20 minutes while the cameras were being attached, and were then released to the wild.
The scientists then retrieved the video footage recorded over the following hours to determine how frequently the animals attempted to capture prey, and how successful they were in their hunts.
The results showed that the alligators were successful at hunting prey about 50 percent of the time; of the 59 prey attacks recorded on camera, 31 resulted in capturing the prey. The researchers also observed that the animals would try to attack a prey up to four times in an hour. During a "feeding frenzy," one alligator made 18 attacks in just one hour, the researchers said.
The researchers knew an alligator was attacking a prey when the animal made a head-strike or jaw-snap move. An attack was considered successful if it was followed by the animal's chewing and swallowing. The researchers estimated that on average, American alligators successfully consumed one prey, or group of small prey species, every four hours.
The footage also revealed that the animals were twice as successful at capturing prey when they were submerged, but they often came to the surface to eat the prey.
"If submerged at the time of prey capture, alligators often surfaced to immobilize, crush, reposition, and swallow captured prey," the researchers write in their study, which is detailed today (Jan. 15) in the journal PLOS ONE.
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