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Scientists get the animal point of view with National Geographic's 'Crittercam'

WASHINGTON

No matter how many times you've seen images of animals in the wild, something about the footage from National Geographic's Crittercam is a little bit surprising.

The pictures are intimate, relaxed, even voyeuristic; giving access to a protected environment where humans rarely get a glimpse.

That was the goal of filmmaker and scientist Greg Marshall. While on an underwater dive off the coast of Central America, Marshall saw a shark swim by and noticed a small, nearly undetectable animal attached to the shark's underbelly. Known as a remora, that tiny animal had a unique vantage point-getting a glimpse of family interactions and ferocious feedings by mirroring the shark's every movement.

Marshall thought "What could you see if you were that suckerfish?"

That led him to develop a specialized camera that would imitate what the suckerfish was seeing, and offer access to the animal kingdom without disturbance from filmmakers.

A NEW VIEW

The resultant camera, called "Crittercam," has been used to gain insight into little-known hunting or social behaviors of emperor penguins, hammerhead sharks, turtles, harbor seals, lions and whales. Led by behavioral ecologist Dr. Mike Heithaus, scientists using Marshall's technology have followed a humpback whale off the coast of Alaska to see how many herring the whales eat to remain healthy and watched underwater feeding habits of emperor penguins in Antarctica.

More than 400 animals and 40 species have been studied using the technology. The technology was first showcased on the show "Crittercam," which aired in January on the National Geographic Channel.

(click thumbnail)A lion is outfitted with a Crittercam
"It's been amazing, because there is no other technology that gets you so close to the animals, that gets us the intimacy and depth that Crittercam offers," Heithaus said. "You never know what's going to happen."

Among those unscripted moments were images brought back from a sea turtle colony, which shed new light on the social strata and mating habits of sea turtles; and images from a monk seal expedition, which revealed that the animals feed in the depths of the ocean, as opposed to only in coral reef areas, as was previously thought.

Each Crittercam unit is comprised of a video camera, microphone, pressure and temperature gauges, headlights, tracking system, headlight and a remote release button.

For underwater dives, the Crittercam is watertight and buoyant. Audio and color video images are recorded onto a small in-unit videocassette. The underwater unit is specially outfitted for each animal, be it a backpack-like harness for an emperor penguin or a suction cup-like device for a blue whale. The majority of the camera is proprietary, but was built off existing professional devices, including systems from Sony and JVC. In the underwater models, up to an hour of video is recorded in an integrated video recording unit within the Crittercam via a mix of Hi8, MiniDV and MiniMV tapes, Marshall said.

For the whale expedition, attaching the camera to the mammal was hardly an easy process. Life-jacketed scientists waited precariously on nearby boats for a blue whale to rise momentarily to the surface. Using a rigged pole with the camera attached to the end, scientists attempted to place the suction cup camera on the mammal's back before it dove beneath the waves.

Eventually, they succeeded. And after an hour or so of recording time, the camera automatically detached itself from the animal, before floating back to the surface where a radio signal gave scientists its location.

On land, the Crittercam is attached to animals by a collar that weighs about 3.5 pounds. Black-and-white video can be transmitted live a little less than a mile away using the 400 MHz band. The battery in the terrestrial device can last up to 30 hours and withstand high heat.

That's not to say the camera is invincible. In Kenya, during the group's first terrestrial expedition with the technology, curious lion cubs tore and tussled with the unit after it dropped from their mother's neck.

"It came back a little beat up," Heithaus said.

The expeditions themselves haven't always been successful, either. During an underwater trial with a melon-head whale, scientists weren't able to tweak the suction-cupped Crittercam enough to stay on the animal's back. The whale's body was just too sleek to hold the camera in place.

In most cases, however, persistence has paid off. In the program's first episode, scientists in the waters off Southern Alaska attached a suction cup Crittercam to the back of a humpback whale. Their goal was to investigate a rare whale behavior known as "bubble net feeding," which theorized that the whales dive in a synchronized circle as one whale exhales a rush of bubbles. In theory, this cloud of bubbles forces fish to the surface where the whales dash up to feed. After viewing video from Crittercam, that theory proved to be right

Each expedition has an ecological focus in mind-to better understand animals' behaviors without tainting the results with human intervention. Scientists used the technology to track harbor seals of Sable Island to determine why the species is dying off while its neighbor, the grey seal, is thriving in the same waters. For its first land animal experiment in Kenya, the team outfitted the Crittercam on two lionesses in an effort to find out why the animals were hunting local wildstock instead of wild prey.

Dr. Lawrence Frank, a scientist working with National Geographic on the lion expedition, expressed his reservations with the technology before it was deployed.

"This [lion expedition] is the first test of the technology in a terrestrial setting," he had said. "I'll be shocked if this works."

To Frank's surprise, it did. The camera brought back images of a lioness working alongside members of her pride as they stalked prey on a midnight hunt, and of a playful mother raising her small cubs.

"A slightly smaller version worn for a longer period could teach us an enormous amount we don't know about lions," Frank said.

National Geographic has completed its seven-episode run, but future expeditions may focus on hyenas and dolphins, among other species. Scientists hope to improve the technology by including additional environmental data on the units, such as acceleration speed and heart rate.

Susan Ashworth is the former editor of TV Technology. In addition to her work covering the broadcast television industry, she has served as editor of two housing finance magazines and written about topics as varied as education, radio, chess, music and sports. Outside of her life as a writer, she recently served as president of a local nonprofit organization supporting girls in baseball.