For years, scientists have planted motion sensitive cameras in the wild to help them get a handle on population sizes, movement patterns and other animal behaviors. “At the same time we’re answering these questions, we’re collecting millions of amazing pictures of animals,” says Roland Kays, curator of mammals at the New York State Museum.
Today, the Smithsonian Institution, in partnership with the New York State Museum, launches a new Web site called "Smithsonian Wild,” a portal to photographs snapped by camera traps administered by Smithsonian researchers and their collaborators around the world. The site indexes the candid snapshots by animal—everything from giant pandas to clouded leopards to tapir—and project site—from Kenya to Panama, Thailand, Peru, China and areas in the United States, such as the Appalachian Trail and New York’s Adirondack Mountains.
"Smithsonian Wild" is the brainchild of Roland Kays and William McShea, a research ecologist with the Smithsonian's National Zoo, who wanted one site to which they could remotely upload and export data from. "Making the photos available to the public is a bonus that aligns well with the Smithsonian's initiative to release collections to the public and allow for public participation," says Robert Costello, a national outreach program manager for the National Museum of Natural History who brought people together to design and develop the site. He says that the museum plans to recruit and train citizen scientists in camera trapping so that they can contribute to Smithsonian research.
Costello hopes that visitors to the site "feel a sense of anticipation and excitement, like the researchers, as they explore photographs of wildlife taken in the absence of human beings and often at very short distances." Understandably, many of the shots include a tail here or a blur of animal there, but the opening gallery showcases some of the most dramatic. In one, a jaguar's eyes are deadlocked on the camera. In another (number 12 of 22), an African buffalo's mug is so close to the lens that you can see its wet nose glisten. Some of them are downright funny, like the one (three photos to the right of the jaguar) of a red squirrel in the Peruvian Amazon standing on its hind legs, scared stiff by the camera flash.
"You get a sense of the variety of wildlife that passes by a single spot," says Costello. "Spying on nature can be full of surprises." The cameras have caught glimpses of elusive cats like the jaguarundi and the margay and revealed unusual combinations of animals, says McShea—weasels carrying mice in their mouths, a tapir with a vampire bat sucking on its leg, an ocelot dragging an agouti and another creeping up behind an armadillo.
Animals like tapir, peccaries, agoutis and paca are so abundant and unflustered by the cameras that they will stick around long enough for it to capture a series of photos that scientists can then string together to create video (see "View Movie" tab under photos). Other animals have been known to get aggressive with the cameras. "The cameras in tropical Africa and Asia have to be protected with special boxes to prevent them from being used as soccer balls by elephants. Black bears will frequently destroy cameras that trigger a flash at night. And golden monkeys in China have been photographed coming down to the ground and urinating on the cameras," says McShea.
In the fall of 2009, I had the opportunity to visit the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute's Barro Colorado Island field station in Panama. I hiked along island's trails and saw howler and spider monkeys, agoutis and crested guan. But, through camera trap photos, I was able to see the area's creatures that I may have scared off while tramping through it. Looking through the photos on "Smithsonian Wild," it is hard not to pick favorites. Personally, I like the giraffe ducked down just enough to fit into the camera frame and the long-faced collared peccary that begs for a thought bubble, saying, "What are you lookin' at?"—both in the gallery on the home page.
Which do you like best?