For a century and a half, intrepid wildlife photographers have spared no bones or budgets in their quest to get as close as possible to their subjects. Will they now step aside for a close-up they can't match: the animal self-portraits of the critter cam?
Showcased in a new National Geographic Channel series called "Crittercam," the term is a catchall name for animal-borne camera systems that have turned several dozen species, some of them endangered, into cinematographers. In one episode of the series, whales are the shooters. A specially designed suction cup holds the critter cam to a huge humpback whale. The camera, microphone and sensors, tucked in a waterproof capsule, record the massive action. The apparatus is designed to drop off the whale after a few hours in seawater. The device then floats to the surface, emitting a signal that allows it to be located and retrieved.
The cameras are tailored for each animal and the conditions. A lion looking like a housecat with a large flea collar wears a critter cam fitted with a special night vision light in a color she and other animals cannot notice. An emperor penguin sports a snazzy harness-backpack model. The technology allows these amateur photographers to produce crisp footage as the critters steer viewers through their lives.
Use of the critter cam has evolved since National Geographic filmmaker Greg Marshall was inspired in 1986 by the sight of a suckerfish attached to a shark on a research dive in Belize.
"I started with a turtle, and when I saw it acting naturally, I got more confidence to try putting cameras on other animals," said Marshall. "I'm biased, but I think it's a quantum leap from anything else out there."
Now the possibilities of critter cams are flying high enough that Marshall has plans to outfit an eagle for, yes, the bird's eye view. But, as it is for all documentary filmmakers, there's no guarantee of compelling footage. "It's unpredictable if it will work," said Tammy Adams of the National Marine Fisheries Service in Juneau, Alaska. "Sometimes they put it on and nothing much happens."
The National Geographic film team joins scientists around the globe for more than a dozen expeditions every year, but a quarter of the animals won't see prime time.
Besides the novelty factor, the knowledge gained from the tiny cameras can be a boon to scientists and inform real-world policy battles. Frank Parrish, with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Hawaii, wanted to figure out why a group of juvenile monk seals, an endangered species, was dying off, while adults showed better survival rates.
A critter cam outfitted with a depth gauge showed that young seals were competing for food in deep waters. It was previously assumed that younger seals learned to hunt in the shallows. Without this technology, researchers could only guess what happened beneath the waves.
"We don't put a camera on seals just to see what they see," said Parrish. "Our focus is ecology, and [with the critter cam] the seals are our guides."
The impact of the cameras on the animals is minimal, said Adams, who believes the use of animal cams is less invasive than other things biologists do to endangered species with full permission from the federal government. Taking muscle and blubber samples from living creatures leaves wounds, she said, while critter cams detach automatically.
Not everyone agrees that the tiny cameras are harmless. Stephanie Boyles of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals argues that the cameras and other scientific devices harass individual animals and can harm them or make it harder for them to hunt or hide. "Losing even one [animal] can be catastrophic for the species," she said.
While critter cams can get us closer than ever to some forms of wildlife, they can also paradoxically take us even further from reality. Travis Longcore, a conservation biologist who teaches at USC and UCLA, said animal cams and other kinds of what he called "nature porn" may reinforce viewer empathy for animals who display humanlike traits, while bona fide endangered species, like the Smith's leech, can't buy airtime. "Does it help at the end of the day?" Longcore said. "Yes. Besides, so much of conservation takes the life out of living things. Individual behavior is very important in conservation."
And it's not just the animals who benefit from the critter cam's intimate look at the natural world; so do the scientists. "People get this picture of a scientist as above the rest of us — 'Oh, I have a PhD, so I can do whatever I want,' " Longcore added. "We do worse things to animals, but [the critter cam] suggests that what we're doing is OK."