Cameras as research instruments

The assessment of animal populations is a longā€standing challenge in wildlife ecology which requires sufficient and reliable data. However, the collection of data in the field can be daunting and time consuming. Recent technological advances on the hardware have led to the adoption of automated camera traps as research instruments. Camera traps, equipped with motion and infrared sensors that get triggered by motion, can provide a reliable and cost-effective tool for the collection of long term monitoring data. Besides the fact that these remotely activated cameras are a time-efficient tool for data collection, it is also an un-invasive technique causing low levels of disturbance as no animals need to be captured or killed.

reconyx camera trap

Piles of images and data management

Camera traps generate high quantities of pictures that may or may not include the species you are interested in. Various types of information can be derived from camera trap images such as animal species, animal counts, their sex, age class and behaviour, and, in case animals are individually tagged, even their name or tag code. Also, each picture is taken at a particular location (yielding x, y, z-coordinates) and time. It gets even more complex in case pictures are part of a series of pictures of one event, such as a herd of deer that passes by.

Another issue is that most wildlife researchers are mainly interested in a selected group of animal species. Whereas a carnivore specialists meticulously filter out those pictures containing carnivorous species, bird experts could find a valuable source of information in the discarded pictures containing birds. In order to mitigate ecological problems such as a reduced biodiversity and changing species compositions due to climate change and the introduction of invasive alien species, it is of utmost importance that conservation scientists collaborate and share as much information as possible with the scientific community.

LifeWatch

As part of the Flemish contribution to the LifeWatch infrastructure, the Research Institute for Nature and Forest (INBO) launched a camera trap project in 2017. The aim of the project is two-fold:

  1. the creation of a camera trap network for monitoring wildlife and
  2. the implementation of an image database platform for the management of projects, pictures and data.

In collaboration with Hasselt University, we installed 45 cameras in the LTER-site National Park Hoge Kempen at randomly chosen locations to collect data of the habitat use of wild boar. Our 45 cameras quickly generated a high load of pictures, which made a database platform for aggregating images in projects, project management and the annotation of images indispensable for our project. Among the already existing photo management systems, Agouti suited our needs best.

Agouti is an online platform for camera trap project management and the annotation of images created by the CameraTrapLab at Wageningen University. The system is already operational for annotating images and managing camera trap projects, but we are cooperating with the team at Wageningen University for the further development of additional modules such as a data pipeline to publish camera trap images as open data and to archive the annotated pictures, the automated recognition of people and animals, and citizen science through crowdsourcing.

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