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Photography as a Tool for Research and Exploration

Camera traps allow explorers to photograph endangered and elusive animals in hopes of raising awareness.

Picture of Florida panther

This Florida panther, Puma concolor coryi, was photographed at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo. It is one of 6,000 species in captivity documented in the Photo Ark project by Joel Sartore. The photographer hopes to eventually preserve the images of some 12,000 species as a tribute to them and as a way to inspire people to care enough to help them survive.

Photograph by Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark

National Geographic is known for its stunning pictures, but did you know that photography itself is one of the Society’s most powerful instruments for discovery, research, and conservation?

Photo Ark is an ambitious project committed to documenting every species in captivity, inspiring people not just to care, but also to help protect these animals for future generations. “I want people to care, to fall in love, and to take action,” says National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore, the founder of the project. He has made intimate portraits of more than 6,000 species in 40 countries to create a photo archive of global biodiversity.

The Florida panther is an excellent example of a critical species Joel is trying to save. It’s a big charismatic cat that lives elusively in a densely populated state, yet very few people have seen one that is not in captivity. Carlton Ward has spent a lot of time in panther habitat, having trekked more than approximately 3,219 kilometers (2,000 miles) through the Florida Wildlife Corridor, a network of protected areas that runs the entire length of the state.

He has hiked, paddled, cycled, and occasionally waded through the Florida Wildlife Corridor, but he has never seen a wild panther with his own eyes. “There are fewer than 160 spread across millions of acres, cautious to avoid people and moving mostly at night,” he says.


Interested in setting a camera trap?

“You can buy trail cameras for around $100 that would work great in your backyard,” says Trevor Frost. “Select an actively used wildlife trail, place the camera at a height that gives proper perspective for the animal(s) you’re targeting, and make sure the background isn’t distracting but provides a sense of the animal’s habitat. Seek even lighting, either full sun or full shade, to avoid blown-out highlights,” says Carlton Ward.

Carlton received a grant from the National Geographic Society to document panthers with camera traps. So far he has managed to “trap” three of the cats with cameras that ironically were set primarily for bears. “Like other National Geographic photographers, the camera trap I use is not the sporting-goods-store variety that you simply strap to a tree to grab grainy images of anything that walks by,” he says. “My system relies on an infrared beam that acts like an electronic trip wire set at a specific height for a specific size animal in a specific place on a trail where my camera is focused and flashes are aimed.”

Trevor Frost was awarded a Young Explorers Grant from the National Geographic Expeditions Council to map and photograph caves in Gabon. Now he is in the Northern Territory of Australia, using camera traps to photograph and film saltwater crocodiles, Earth’s largest living crocodilian—and, National Geographic reports, what some say is the animal most likely to eat a human. “With camera traps we are able to capture saltwater crocodiles in ways not done before, and we are able to capture behaviors [like nest-hatching] not previously documented in the wild,” Trevor explains, “because we aren't required to be there to operate the cameras.”

A passionate roboticist, explorer, and photographer, National Geographic Young Explorer Antonella Wilby has built cutting-edge technologies for marine mammal monitoring, shipwreck mapping, and underwater cave imaging. Now the Ph.D. student studying Computer Science at UC San Diego is trying to figure out how to make the first underwater photograph of the vaquita marina, the smallest and rarest marine mammal in the world.

Working in the northern Sea of Cortez, off the coast of the small fishing town of San Felipe in Mexico’s Baja California, Antonella’s idea is to use vaquita vocalizations to trigger a camera to film themselves. Porpoises emit clicks, sounds sometimes used for communication and sometimes for echolocation, to find food and navigate underwater, she explains. “Researchers have been recording these ultrasonic clicks as a means to estimate the current population size, but my idea is to use these clicks to trigger a camera: When a vaquita emits a click nearby, a specialized underwater camera begins to record, and if the vaquita swims within range it will capture the first-ever underwater photo of a live vaquita.”

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