Eyes in the Wild — A Conservation Biologist’s Perspective

My name is Cole Burton, I’m originally from Guelph, Ontario, and I’m an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Forestry and a Canada Research Chair in Terrestrial Mammal Conservation. I lead the Wildlife Coexistence Lab (WildCo for short), where we study interactions between people and wildlife. We focus mainly on large-bodied terrestrial mammals—species that tend to get a lot of public attention, sometimes called “charismatic megafauna”, like caribou, grizzly bears, wolves and lions.

Our lab is interested in understanding how species react to their changing environments, particularly the mounting pressures we as a society are imposing on them by altering the landscapes they live in. We do this using a variety of different methods, but a key tool that we use is what we call camera trapping (also called remote camera surveys), which is a non-invasive technique that allows us to put cameras out in the landscape and let the animals take the pictures. Essentially a kind of true animal selfie. Warm-bodied animals take pictures of themselves as they move past these remote cameras, which we deploy across a variety of habitat types and land uses, providing us with a wealth of information on many rare and elusive species that are otherwise difficult to detect.

I first used camera traps during my PhD work in Ghana, West Africa. We were using old analog film cameras, which were quite difficult to work with. We could only get 24 or 36 pictures at a time (until the roll was filled up) and sometimes we had very poor-quality photos—particularly having to transport and develop the film in remote, humid, tropical conditions. But these days those limitations have been removed as digital camera technology has exploded. With the costs coming down and quality increasing, we can now gather huge quantities of data—really clear, crisp images—on these species in a cost-effective manner.


Mitch Fennell shows how to set up a camera trap.

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