First Global 'Camera Trap' Study Reveals Threatened Mammal Species' Lives, Damaged Habitats

Offering an invaluable resource for conservation biologists, a global “hidden camera” study, encompassing seven tropical forest sites from across the globe, has yielded over 50,000 photos offering rare glimpses of normal mammal activity; many of these mammals  are threatened and are struggling to adapt to habitat destruction.

Pan troglodytes (Common chimpanzee), Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda. Pan troglodytes (Common chimpanzee), an endangered species. First Global Camera Trap Mammal Study.

With over 50, 000 photos (and counting) capturing over 100 mammal species from seven tropical forst areas across Africa, Asia and the Americas…a global ‘hidden camera” research project is giving conservation biologists a rare glimpse into the ordinary lives of many endangered or threatened mammal species.

The camera study, conducted by the Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring Network (TEAM), is helping to confirm what smaller, isolated studies have indicated: that habitat fragmentation and destruction is jeopardizing the biological integrity and diversity of many of the world’s most threatened mammals.

Udzungwa Mountains, Tanzania. Loxodonta africana (African elephant)
Udzungwa Mountains, Tanzania. Loxodonta africana (African elephant), a vulnerable species. This was the largest animal photographed in the study, weighing 3,940 kg. First Global Camera Trap Mammal Study

The seven-site network consists of 420 camera, with 60 cameras per site (spaced 1 km apart), and the camera “traps” were designed to be triggered when anything warm approached within range. The photos were collected after a two year period from 2008 – 2010 and were then categorized according to species type, body size, diet, and several other factors. Overall, the TEAM researcher found  three key similarities amongst those sites in continuous forests and larger protected areas: higher species diversity, greater variation in animal sizes, and a greater variety of diets amongst all mammalian, dietary types (insectivores, herbivore, carnivores, omnivores).

Least diverse was the site in Lao PDR in southeast Asia, presumably due to less continuous forest land and more, highly-fragmented forest habitats. The source/cause of most habitat destruction and fragmentation is human development.

Some of the mammal snapshots include a tiny (as yet unidentified) mouse, young African elephants, gorillas, chimpanzees, cougars, jaguars, tapirs and giant anteaters.

 Tapirus terrestris (South American Tapir), Central Suriname Nature Reserve, Suriname.
Central Suriname Nature Reserve, Suriname. Tapirus terrestris (South American Tapir) - a vulnerable species. Of the sites researched, this one presented the highest number of species diversity (28). First Global Camera Trap Mammal Study

Also “caught on camera”: eco-tourists and even poachers. Unintentionally, the hidden camera network may help conservationists track the activities of these poachers and possibly take action to thwart them.

Publishing their photos and findings in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, under the title ‘Community structure and diversity of tropical forest mammals: data from a global camera trap network’, Ahumada et al describe their study as the first “standardized pantropical forest terrestrial mammal community study”

The stated purpose of the study is to examine several aspects of “terrestrial mammal species and community diversity”, including species richness, species diversity, evenness, dominance, functional diversity and community structure.

The network of camera traps (i.e., camouflaged), using a single, standardized, camera-trapping methodology, was implemented in seven protected areas on 4 continents. Those sites are located in  Uganda, Tanzania, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Suriname, Brazil and Costa Rica. Each site offers differing forested landscape configurations — from severely fragmented forests to continuous forests. In all, a total of “12, 687 camera trap days” are providing the researchers with an important means of assessing the current state of global mammal populations.

Panthera Onca (Jaguar), Central Suriname Nature Reserve, Suriname
Central Suriname Nature Reserve, Suriname. Panthera Onca (Jaguar), a near threatened species. First Global Camera Trap Mammal Study

Quoting from the paper abstract:

“We find that mammal communities from highly fragmented sites have lower species richness, species diversity, functional diversity and higher dominance when compared with sites in partially fragmented and continuous forest.”

According to a related news item from Conservation International, impacts of this habitat fragmentation “are seen in the form of less diversity of species and less variety of body sizes and diets (smaller animals and insectivores are the first to disappear), among others.”

According to the Conservation International website, one quarter of all mammal species are under threat. This study fills an important gap in providing quantitative evidence of these threats.

It is hoped that this information will not only help our understanding of the regional and global threats that mammal species face, but also help scientist anticipate potential extinctions before it is too late to stop them.

“We emphasize the importance of standardized camera trapping approaches for obtaining baselines for monitoring forest mammal communities so as to adequately understand the effect of global, regional and local threats and appropriately inform conservation actions.

Since 2010 the Network has expanded to a total of 17 sites (newly added sites: Panama, Ecuador, another site in Brazil, two sites in Peru, Madagascar, Congo, Cameroon, Malaysia and India).

To see more hidden camera photos, visit the First Global Camera Trap Mammal Study gallery.

Top Photo: ((chimpanzee) courtesy of Wildlife Conservation Society as part of the TEAM Network ;, First Global Camera Trap Mammal Study

Second photo: (African elephant): courtesy of Museo delle Scienze (Trento Museum of Science) as part of the TEAM Network Partnership –

Additional Photos: (tapir and jaguar) courtesy of Conservation International Suriname, a member of the TEAM network –, First Global Camera Trap Mammal Study

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