Natural Behavior

University of South Carolina research team uses trail cameras all over the world to monitor the natural behavior of wildlife in environmentally impacted areas.

University of South Carolina (USC) students are blazing new trails — using hidden trail cameras to monitor the health of wildlife species in areas of concern around the world. This groundbreaking research will help determine the effects of environmental factors, such as radioactive contaminants or other disturbances, on native wildlife species.

USC graduate student Melissa Groleau:

“I started out assisting in USC Professor Tim Mousseau’s lab in January 2018 — working on a project using trail cameras to estimate wildlife abundance. I have always enjoyed being outdoors and studying wildlife, so this research was right up my alley! I was so excited to get involved and to use this as my Master’s research project.

We currently have over two hundred cameras placed, yielding hundreds of thousands of pictures (literally!). Sixty cameras are placed in Chernobyl (Ukraine), and sixty are placed in Fukushima (Japan), and about one hundred are placed here in South Carolina. Of course, actual cameras numbers vary due to things like wildfires that are out of our control.

These trail cameras are being used to track which animals pass in front of the camera and how many of each species are in the area. The records of each animal that walks in front of the camera can be compiled to estimate abundance at and between the cameras. These cameras are typically used by hunters to survey the game on their land. Our lab has expanded that use to equally cover an area in question — trail cams are equally-spaced in a grid like pattern — to accurately survey the medium and large mammal species present.

Night shot of a coyote carrying its prey through the woods.

So many trail camera pictures means we need tons of help to go through them! This project alone has recruited at least twenty-five undergraduate students, and it is still adding more. Most students have worked on the project for a semester or a few months, but some students have been around since the beginning.

Using the cameras, we are looking to show that animals are in less abundance in areas of higher disturbance or radioactivity. I’m very excited about this research. I think the cameras are a very common technology with hunters or outdoorsmen, so to be able to use them for science is awesome!”

USC student Matthew Waller:

“Our South Carolina site cameras are serviced every few weeks so there is a constant flow of pictures for us to process. We have been working on this project for about a year and plan to expand this project this spring to a second South Carolina location. Our Fukushima cameras have been placed for about two years and we have just finished going through all of those pictures — approximately one million?! That leaves us with Chernobyl, which we have just started going through. We have about one million photos to go through from our Chernobyl cameras which have been placed for about two years. All of our cameras will continue to record pictures, and therefore our data set will always be growing!

Chernobyl trail camera images:

The next step for this project is the analysis! We now have a (mostly complete but always being added to) data set for Fukushima and a data set for our South Carolina site. We will quantify animal abundance of common mammal species and compare that to levels of human disturbance, environmental factors (water/roads), and radiation levels for Fukushima.

Another project going on in Professor Mousseau’s lab is on firebugs from Chernobyl. These bugs naturally have a symmetrical pattern on their back. However, in Chernobyl the bugs display very irregular patterns and even deformed wings. This project is studying if/how these DNA mutations are passed down through generations.”

Some of our favorite video clips:

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