Wild animal selfies drive millions of digital clicks and shares, but these critter photos are not just entertainment for the online masses. They are scientific data collected by camera traps: cameras equipped with a sensor—motion, infrared, or light beam—that triggers the shutter when it detects an animal moving by.
These devices let researchers observe wild animals in their natural habitats while largely staying out of their hair, feathers, and scales.
In Candid Creatures: How Camera Traps Reveal the Mysteries of Nature, zoologist Roland Kays has collected 613 of the best images from 153 research groups around the world. It’s a delightful photo album of wildlife ranging from aardvarks to zebras, with plenty of big cats, bears, primates, elephants, and other charismatic critters in between, as well as a comprehensive overview of how camera trap technology is transforming our understanding of their lives.
Camera trapping has been around in some form for more than a century. To create his 1878 images of a horse in full gallop, photographer Eadweard Muybridge connected strings to the shutters of a dozen cameras, which the horse triggered in sequence by breaking the strings as it ran by. In the late 1880s, Pennsylvania photographer (and one-term Congress member) George Shiras created a camera-and-flash system triggered when a wild animal touched a trip wire. His images won a gold medal at the universal exposition in Paris in 1900.
Fast-forward to 2006, the year photographer George Steinmetz touched off the field’s modern era when he created the first digital camera trap while on assignment for National Geographic. In the decade since, cameras have become more durable, memory cards more capacious, and batteries more powerful—a trifecta that has ushered in the golden age of the camera trap. “Modern studies use dozens of camera traps over hundreds of locations to collect many thousands or millions of photographs,” Kays writes. “The camera trap photograph offers a way to measure biodiversity, a testament to life on earth similar to the traditional animal skins and skeletal specimens stored in the collections of our great natural history museums.”
Scientists are learning things about even the most avidly observed species from camera trapping, Kays writes, while generating the perfect means to engage the public on preserving biodiversity. “Data and images are the two most important results of any camera trap study, working together to help in the fight to conserve animals and their habitats.”
Click to enter the gallery of self-portraits by 10 endangered animal species.
All captions are adapted from Candid Creatures.