The Secret Lives of Mammals

Camera-trap photo of ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) in Costa Rica. (Photo courtesy of Organization for Tropical Studies, a member of the TEAM network.)

IN PHOTOS: See images from the camera-trap study

We all love mammals — from furry pandas to wise old elephants — yet even we ecologists who dedicate our lives to their study still know so little about them. That’s why our newly-published camera trap study — with almost 52,000 images of elusive animals from seven sites across the globe — holds so much potential.

Here’s what we do know: even though mammals live nearly everywhere on the planet, most species live in tropical areas — especially tropical forests, where they play key roles dispersing seeds, pollinating trees and keeping tabs on other species so they don’t become pests.

Camera-trap photo of South American tapir (Tapirus terrestris) in Brazil. (Photo courtesy of Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazonia, a member of the TEAM network.)

Because many tropical mammals disperse seeds, and the plant species they disperse have dense wood with lots of carbon, these mammals may play an important role in climate change mitigation. Forests with fewer mammals might have less of these high wood-density trees, therefore mammal-depleted forests might not be able to sequester carbon as effectively as forests with healthy mammal populations.

Although conservationists are concerned about tropical forest mammals, there is very little information on what is actually happening to most of these mammal communities as the threats of climate change and deforestation loom over them. But now we have system to gather it: the Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring (TEAM) Network.

TEAM has the largest monitoring system for terrestrial vertebrates on the planet. Instead of having people walking around the forest looking for mammals — which is very inefficient, as these animals are usually rare and hard to spot — TEAM deploys camera traps over large areas of forest all over the tropics (eight monitoring sites in Latin America, five in Africa and Madagascar and four in Southeast Asia).

Poacher caught on camera in Uganda. (Photo courtesy of Wildlife Conservation Society, a member of the TEAM network.)

At each monitoring site, these camera traps work 24/7 for one month, taking pictures of everything that crosses their path — including hunters. These hunter images could potentially be used by park authorities to help control poaching in these areas. On average we obtain 7,500 images from each site every year, which provide important information about the conservation status of many of the species living there.

This all sounds great until you find yourself with 10,000–20,000 pictures from one site and try to make sense of what is happening with the species there. These images have most of the information we need (location, time, date, temperature, etc.) except one crucial element: the name of the species captured on film. Manually assigning species names for tens of thousands of images is a daunting task and could take months. To help us do this, TEAM has created revolutionary software that allows scientists to process large amounts of images quickly by intelligently grouping them based on time and date and lighting features. This cuts down our processing time to a matter of days.

Southern pig-tailed macaque (Macaca nemestrina) in Indonesia. (Photo courtesy of Wildlife Conservation Society, a member of the TEAM network.)

We have just published an important paper that compiles this information and shows the impacts of reserve size and landscape fragmentation on these mammal communities. We found a significant decline in several measures of diversity as our monitoring sites vary from continuous intact forests to highly fragmented landscapes. As the sites shrink and become more and more fragmented, species richness, species diversity (which measures also the relative abundance of species), the diversity of animal body sizes and their diversity in the food web all declined. This pattern persists across sites, despite their differences in rainfall patterns, soil and location.

Perhaps more importantly, TEAM is providing a baseline against which we can measure our success as conservationists. By collecting data on these tropical forests year after year, we will be able to understand how different conservation strategies might work — and better inform decision-makers.

Jorge Ahumada

It is not enough to love mammals; if we really want to save them and the forests they live in, we need to roll up our sleeves and see how well we’re doing.

Jorge Ahumada is the technical director of TEAM and the leader of this study. To learn more, download the paper (PDF – 602.10 KB) or check out more photos on CI’s Facebook page.

Comments

  1. Pingback: First Global Camera Trap Mammal Study | cupcakepunk.com

  2. Youthfor the Environment Zimbabwe says

    Thanks for the educative and informative article. As an new organisation that is carrying out environmental conservation operations we are encouraged when we see all the work you are engaged in and read such enriching articles from others who are equally passionate about the environment. Keep up the good job!!!

  3. T.TITUS CHARLEY says

    SO GOOD THAT THE ISSUES OF ECOSYSTEM SERVICE AND ALL THOSE LIKES ARE VERY HEALTHY FOR OUR EXISTENCE AS A PEOPLE. CONSERVATION OF THOSE WILDLIFE ADD LIFE TO OUR EXISTENCE, GIVE US THE FEELINGS OF NATURE AND GENERALLY ADD SURPLUS TO OUR STAY ON EARTH. IT IS SO BAD TO DESTROY ALL THOSE BEAUTIFUL STUFF OR ELSE WE WILL HAVE THEM NON EXISTENCE.
    THANKS AND THIS IS MY FRANK OPINION.

    T.TITUS CHARLEY
    CI-LIBERIA

  4. Ryan says

    Why is the poacher’s face obscured? He’s out to kill protected animals illegally.

    I doubt he has a legal team that will come after you.

    1. Andrew says

      Prove he’s a poacher. Prove he’s out to kill protected animals illegally. Prove he’s not just going for a walk.

      Until you can do that, his face should be obscured.

  5. Donna says

    This is for Andrew.You think he’s not a poacher! Why is he carring a knife and a blow gun? A pleasure walk through the woods by himself?! WAKE UP!!

    1. Andrew says

      He probably is a poacher, I don’t disagree. But the photo isn’t proof of that and certainly doesn’t equal an arrest or conviction for poaching.

      The caption doesn’t say where the photo was taken (other than Uganda). Could he possibly have been hunting non-endangered animals in a manner that is approved by the government and wildlife authorities? Unlikely, but possible.

      At best, he is an alleged poacher. Now, change the text of the caption to “alleged poacher” and I think you can show his face without any problem. Find out if he has been previously convicted of poaching and change the caption to “previously convicted poacher” and I think you can show his face without any problem.

      But given how the caption was worded, they were right to blur his face.

    2. HBO says

      Donna: And do you really believe the poachers are going to leave the cameras there, knowing they will be convicted by the photos?…they will destroy them. You wake up.
      By the way is the guy looking directly and smiling to the camera?

  6. Pingback: here & now › THE SECRET LIFE OF MAMMALS

  7. Larisa Calva says

    I’m an elementary school principal in Mexico. I’m sure these amazing pictures will help raise awareness among students,partents, and staff.

  8. JUAN MANUEL says

    felicitaciones dr ahumada por su trabajo en la reserva de la biosfera tehuacan-cuicatlan tambien hemos estado llevando un trabajo de fotocolecta de vertebrados en coordinacion con el Instituto de Biologia de la UNAM, INECOL, UAP, y ong como CONBIODES obteniendo regitros muy valiosos sobre distribucion de especies no descritas para la zona asi como evaluaciones de calidad de habitat para generar corredores biologicos por la presencia de especies calve, nos daria mucho gusto contactarlo y mandarle parte de nuestro trabajo

  9. kyaw doh says

    Hello everybody who is working with Conversation International Wildlife Group: We are really so glad and amazed when we study your secret life of mammals. I have to submit a comment to you because it is really interesting to study about these wild annimals ….
    Thanks you all, and keep trying hard.
    God will love you and keep you safe in your work.

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  11. Pingback: 1 Million Camera-trap Photos — and Counting | Conservation International Blog

  12. Pingback: 1 Million Camera-trap Photos — and Counting | Human Nature - Conservation International Blog

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