Technological musings

We decided to call him Gammy.

He was a feisty old fox, with worn teeth and a stiff ankle where a once-broken bone had healed. It was the second-last day of my field trip and I’d been debating whether to pull the traps in as I drove up the road. We had already checked them at dawn and caught nothing, but here was Gammy at 11 o’clock in the morning – my fourth fox of the week.

Gammy after being fitted with a radio-collar (Photo: Lauren Engledow)

Gammy after being fitted with a radio-collar (Photo: Lauren Engledow)

Although Gammy was old, he looked healthy enough and was the second-heaviest fox I’d caught. So we fitted him with a GPS collar, administered the anti-sedative and tucked him under a bush with a hot water bottle to recover. A couple of hours later, he was gone and the tracking beeps from his collar indicated he was moving through the shrubs nearby.

Over the next five weeks I collected some of the oddest movement data I’d seen.   Unlike the other foxes, Gammy didn’t move around a regular territory. Instead, he had three hotspots where he’d stay for days, travelling no more than a few hundred metres, before trekking a couple of kilometres to the next one. Also, most of the other foxes were active from just after sunset until dawn, and then lay up during the day. Gammy’s activity peaked from 10am to 3pm. Strange fox.

It wasn’t until I went to collect his collar at the end of the study that it all made sense. After sneaking through a couple of electric fences and dodging rain-soaked cows, I found Gammy’s collar on the edge of the forest, near the area he had used most intensively. Just next to it was a huge pile of old cow hides, teeth and bone. Mystery solved: it was a farmer’s carcass dump.  Gammy may have been old but he had his territory thoroughly sussed.

A perfect fox hangout - free food and plenty of cover

A perfect fox hangout – free food and plenty of cover

GPS-tracking collars are amazing. I could never have collected such high-resolution data on fox ranging behaviour and movement if I’d had to track them all on foot.  Yet, sometimes hiking in the rain and falling in cow slush (thanks John! Field rule #1 – always let someone else go first when wading through sedge-bog) can explain so much.

This experience with Gammy reminded me of a comment back at the start of my PhD. I had been sitting in the lounge room of our field house, replacing batteries in motion-sensing cameras, when one of the older naturalists on our team walked in. Tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of cameras were piled up around me, each one needing its screen cleaned and batteries replaced before I could put them out in the forest again. Sixty cameras x 12 batteries = a lot of fiddling around getting the positive terminals at the correct end.

‘Jeez,’ he said, squatting down to help. ‘In my day, we used to just go out to the bush and look for stuff’.

He had a point. Remote-sense technology inevitably creates a barrier between you and the ecosystem you are trying to understand.  When I use cameras to survey mammals, I tie each one to a tree in the middle of the forest and come back three weeks later to collect it and assess the vegetation structure. By the time I’ve done this 120 times, downloaded the photos and spent weeks identifying mammals, I’ve forgotten which site was which.

Motion-sensing cameras are a great way of surveying wildlife. The challenge is remembering where you put them!

Because the sites are numbered, this isn’t really a problem – I can still test for statistical associations between, say, long-nosed potoroo occurrence and understorey vegetation cover. But I have no innate understanding of this relationship – it is so different to the feel for species’ habitat preferences you develop when you’re up at dawn every morning checking your traps.

On the other hand, potoroos are apparently pretty tricky to trap. If I had been trying to catch (rather than just photograph) them, I would probably have spent most of my time looking at empty traps and cursing. Instead, the cameras have given me mountains of data on the distribution and activity patterns of potoroos, as well as bandicoots, bush rats, possums, feral cats, foxes and umpteen other species.

LN Potoroo_Site185_Mam_C73 2305

Long-nosed potoroos are generally nocturnal but this one ventured out in the day

They also allow you to glimpse animal behaviours you would never see in person:

Female fox scent-marking a bait station

A female fox scent-marking a bait station


Echinda_Site186_Mam_C89 195

Bipedal echidnas


SW w honeyeater Site41_Mam_C91 (1682)

An Australian ox-pecker? White-faced honeyeater and swamp wallaby

So, I dunno. Probably both approaches have their place.

What do you think?

11 thoughts on “Technological musings

  1. Hi,
    I have been enjoying your blog – Ian Lunt from CSU recommended you (an old lecturer of mine). I work at Brewongle Environmental Education Centre on the Hawkesbury River near Sydney. We use wildlife cameras frequently with visiting school students and have discovered plenty of fauna around our centre that we would normally not see – so we love them! We only have 5 though – so not so much work for us. What are you using for baits? I normally use a peanut butter mixture or some meat – could you recommend the most effective baits?

    Keep the blogs coming and thanks!


    • Thanks Steve – glad you’ve been enjoying it. Your camera program sounds great! I usually use a mix of peanut butter, oats, golden syrup and pistachio essence as a bait, held in tea infusers or a PVC vent cowl. I’ve found this works well for both native mammals and introduced predators. Some kind of fish oil (anchovy or tuna) can also be attractive to meat eaters. Which species have you been detecting? I’m planning to add another page to my blog with resources for camera-trapping in the next week or two, so I’d be interested in any feedback you might have.

      Best wishes,

  2. Hi Bron, if Michelangelo had spray paint or an angle grinder to chip marble I bet he would have used them. My guess is without camera traps you could spend a lifetime for a couple of glimpses and still be in the dark. Maybe you need a good dogs-body to do hack-work in field. Just ask. I need video footage to add to art project, see be a great trade.

  3. What a great analogy – thanks Peter! (though I’m not sure I can aspire to be a Michelangelo :P) Camera traps have certainly shown me a lot I could never have found out any other way. I’ve finished fieldwork for my PhD unfortunately but can pass your details on to other in our research group if you’re keen on volunteering. Thanks for sharing your blog also – stunning work! I particularly like the Departure Lounge.
    If you’re looking for more footage, I don’t have any video but have lots of stills 0.5sec apart (used to make the fox gif) – let me know what you’re looking for and I might be able to help out

    • Hi Bron, I’m attempting to bring species extinction into the arts and broader community domain. Extinctions (which I do not separate from climate change/population growth/land use/consumer driven economics) is not on the public radar. Small marsupials have ‘warm and cuddly’ plus Aussie cultural appeal (unlike rodents,reptiles,invertebrates). I also aim squarely at cats (and Oz cat owner education). What I could use is both still and video ‘left over’ cameratrap images of small mammals esp endangered sp. I have no idea what happens to this data after ecology has finished with it. Problem for me is I have no way of accessing this material. I volunteer because its he only way I can talk to scientists directly, actually see animals etc, and I like doing hands-on (as you can see from my site). Great if you could ask around research groups, contact via for email. I have: 4wd, camper trailer, fit, time, can cook, live Melb but willing to travel, keep out of way etc. Cheers

  4. I think there’s still a lot of interesting stuff to come using new tech on ecological studies. Wonder if it’d be interesting using a small video cam (like a GoPro) as well as a GPS attached to an animal – get their POV on their behaviour at the time, combined with location. Of course there’re lots of possibilities, once the tech gets small enough…! Great blog – keep up the good work! 🙂

    • Thanks Alan. I just saw a presentation by Hugh McGregor who has been attaching GoPros to feral cats in the Kimberley and getting some fascinating data! I’d love to try it with foxes…

      • Definitely interesting “disconnect” between getting the immediate data of interest more easily (through the tech) but losing the connection to the ecosystem that is gathered when you’re doing daily treks to and around each site. It is problematic as the separation of the data from the ecosystem is artificial. We can surely improve our understanding through applying more technology but again, some of this is limited in scope and we really do need to place value on experience and connection to the system itself – if we have anyone who has that, we should try to learn as much as we can. Overlaying and analysing high-res GIS data on top of animal movements can tell us a bit more, but there are also time-dependent reasons for actions (seasonal/chance) in addition to stuff like day-to-day weather fluctuations etc. I guess getting video and analysing that is a step along the way, and definitely an interesting POV too! 🙂 Keep up the good work!

  5. Pingback: Never blog in your PJs, and other tips for science and ecology bloggers | Ian Lunt's Ecological Research Site

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