For more than five years, the Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring (TEAM) Network has been collecting camera-trap images of animals in tropical forests. TEAM started in Brazil and has now collected data on trees, terrestrial vertebrates and climate in 16 tropical forests in 14 countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America. This year, TEAM reached an exciting milestone: its millionth camera-trap image!
A gigantic African elephant, a family of chimpanzees, an elusive jaguar — these make for beautiful photographs, but what else can we learn from these images?
More than just pretty pictures, these images house important biodiversity data. By analyzing these data, scientists can learn how biodiversity is affected by climate and land-use change over time. Because the data are collected repeatedly at each site using standardized methods, we can more easily compare sites and examine changes over time. This information is invaluable to protected area managers aiming to conserve species biodiversity, which provides the building blocks of healthy ecosystems and the provisioning of ecosystem services critical to human well-being.
Although the images are “captured” by automated camera traps (responding to both movement and temperature), the protocol for setting up and collecting the cameras, processing the images and identifying the animals is an intensive process. TEAM site managers — local scientists with university degrees in ecology and biology — lead teams of technicians who set up and collect the camera traps. This often involves spending days in the field, enduring fluctuating temperatures, rough terrain and threats from dangers like falling trees and venomous snakes.
After collecting the camera traps, the site managers review each image to identify the animals. In some locations, like the Republic of Congo, there can be upwards of 60,000 images per collection season! All of this information is then uploaded to the TEAM web portal, where it is made freely available to anyone who wishes to examine the data.
Up to now this has been primarily the realm of trained scientists such as CI’s Dr. Jorge Ahumada and colleagues, who made a media splash in 2011 with fascinating new results. However, as TEAM collects its millionth image, we are also at a critical point in providing information to the decision-makers who have a say in the management of these forests.
TEAM is now crafting indicators that will aggregate the camera-trap data and create an overall picture of the health of the animal community. These indicators can then be used by conservation managers and policymakers throughout the tropics.
For example, we are collaborating with the IUCN’s Species Survival Commission to integrate our camera-trap data into its global mammal and bird assessments. We are also working with the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Biodiversity Indicators Partnership to propose new indicators that can inform progress of several international targets to protect biodiversity.
With new, web-based data analytic and visualization tools, TEAM will make the data more accessible and usable to decision-makers. By sharing this information, TEAM will help protect forests and species, ultimately protecting the ecosystem services upon which we all rely.
So what is the millionth TEAM camera trap image, you ask? It’s included in the GIF below. Time will tell what the presence of this jaguar could mean for the future of our tropical forests.
Morgan Cottle is the project manager of the Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring (TEAM) Network — a partnership between CI, the Missouri Botanical Garden, the Smithsonian Institution and the Wildlife Conservation Society.