As a biologist researching monk seals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in 1995, Kyler Abernathy was skeptical about Crittercam. Crittercam, which can record video and audio as well as collect other data, is a camera attached to a wild animal.
Greg Marshall, vice president of National Geographic’s Remote Imaging Program, wanted to attach Crittercams to some of the seals Abernathy was studying.
After helping Marshall capture a few seals to be fitted with Crittercams, Abernathy waited to see what footage and data might turn up on the device. He didn’t expect much.
“Then the seal came back,” Abernathy says. “We got the camera and looked at the video. It completely overturned everything I thought about how these seals hunted their food and caught their prey. It made me think that ‘Wow, there is some real value in this.’ That’s really proved itself out over the years on all the different animals.”
At the time, Abernathy thought monk seals fed on bountiful schools of fish that swam around the reefs.
“The Crittercam showed that the seals did not feed in the shallow reefs at all,” he says. “They swam outside of these shallow reefs down to much deeper habitats.”
Three years later, Abernathy joined National Geographic’s Remote Imaging Program, where he is currently the director of research. Abernathy says the mission of the Remote Imaging Program is to develop unique imaging tools—including Crittercam—for research and conservation projects.
“The Crittercam has just over the years been a great majority of what we’ve done,” he says. “I mean, that covers a broad swath of things. Over the years, Crittercam has been many kinds of cameras, because the technology has evolved, so that word covers a lot of devices. We use that term to generally refer to cameras that we are actually going to put on wild animals.”
One of the greatest difficulties for the Remote Imaging Program is determining the best way to actually attach a Crittercam to a wild animal. Wanting to record the creature’s natural behavior, the program does not want the Crittercam to disturb the animal in any way.
Crittercams stick to whales, dolphins, and leatherback turtles by a special suction cup. On a penguin, the device is secured with a backpack-like harness.
“The attachments are more challenging than I think a lot of people realize, because a lot of people focus on the cameras themselves, which are amazing tools, but you do have to get it on the animal to get anything out of it,” Abernathy says.
An unexpected animal provided the program with one of its biggest obstacles. “One of the ones that was amazingly and surprisingly frustrating was manatees,” Abernathy says. “It’s one I think caught us all by surprise, because they are big, lumpy, docile animals for the most part.”
Eventually, after trying suction cups, glue, and various harness designs, the team came up with a solution—a belt that suspended a camera above the manatee by a nylon rod.
Eric Berkenpas, the lead engineer for the Remote Imaging Program, says he found it difficult to attach Crittercams to another marine animal: the great white shark. Berkenpas helped design a way to attach the Crittercam without injuring the fish.
“We came up with a fin clamp that snaps around the dorsal fin that will release and won’t hurt the shark at all,” he says.
This made for an intense experience for Berkenpas, who attempted to attach the Crittercams to great whites with a pole from an ocean vessel floating off Mexico’s Guadalupe Island.
“What we had to do was basically bait them to come to the boat,” he says. “Once the shark commits to grabbing onto the bait, it closes its eyes for a split second and opens its mouth. At that point, it’s completely oblivious to everything else, and that’s when you have to get the camera on.”
The idea for the Crittercam came in 1986, when marine biologist Greg Marshall was diving off the coast of Belize. On one particular dive, Marshall watched a shark pass by with a remora fish suctioned onto its belly. Marshall thought if he could make a non-intrusive camera that attached to a shark like a remora, he could observe the shark’s natural behavior.
Abernathy says that in Crittercam’s early years, it was used exclusively on marine animals.
“Greg is a marine biologist, so his real initial interest was trying to study marine animals with this device,” he says. “Because it’s so hard for people to access that marine world, and we’ve seen so little of these animals’ lives, there are potentially huge gaps in our knowledge.”
Abernathy says the main hurdle to the development of the terrestrial Crittercam was the weight of the device, which was not as great a factor in the water. In 2003, the first terrestrial Crittercam was tested on an African lion. Terrestrial Crittercams have now been attached to lions, hyenas, and grizzly bears.
On marine animals, Crittercams can detach using a pre-programmed release mechanism. The Crittercams, which have ultrasonic signalers and radio transmitters, can then be found on the surface by researchers with tracking devices.
“We go to extreme measures to try and get these things back,” Berkenpas says. “The cameras themselves are pretty valuable, but the most valuable thing is the footage that the camera might have on it.”