Can camera traps relieve our species’ loneliness?

A community science project reintroduces humans to their fellow mammals.

The coyote ambled into the clearing on the first of September, a warm night lit by a thumbnail of moon. She’d spent the evening padding through juniper and pines near Colorado’s Arkansas River: snuffling after rabbits, pouncing on mice, inspecting fox scat. At precisely 10:48 p.m., she passed the Reconyx PC800 camera that I’d strapped to a ponderosa, which snapped three portraits of her lit by infrared flash — head high, eyes aglow, the embodiment of her confident, curious species.


I learned about the coyote over a month later, when I retrieved the Reconyx and downloaded its photos. It was among eight cameras I’d set for Snapshot USA, a nationwide census of mammals with around 150 participants, most affiliated with universities or nonprofits. For two months, we canvassed forests, wetlands, deserts, prairies, urban parks — anywhere a deer might set hoof or a squirrel lay paw. Brigit Rooney, the survey’s coordinator, told me that its purpose was to “track wildlife population responses to changes in land use, cover and climate across spatial and temporal scales” — in other words, to figure out where mammals live, where they’re going, and what drives them.

I’d joined Snapshot for several reasons. I wanted to contribute to science, certainly. But I also longed for the frisson of gazing into the eyes of my fellow beings, and hoped to gain insight into the hidden Others with whom we share the land. Rooney, who annually sets cameras on her family’s property near Whitefish, Montana, once checked her memory card and saw a photo of herself strolling the grounds — followed, eight minutes later, by a mountain lion. “You realize that, at any moment, there could be an animal watching you,” Rooney said. “And there probably is.” 

More than anything, I wanted to watch back.

THE FIRST PERSON to deploy camera traps for science was likely Frank Chapman, a biologist who spent the 1920s and 1930s studying the ecology of Barro Colorado, a Panamanian island. Most of his contemporaries collected animals with rifles, but Chapman rejected lethality: “We want a census of the living, not a record of the dead.” So he strung a trip-wire between trees, baited it with a banana, and rigged it to a tripod-mounted camera, using explosive magnesium powder to furnish the flash. His rudimentary apparatus captured crystalline images of ocelots, cougars, tapirs, agoutis, coatis and peccaries. “The pleasures of life on Barro Colorado,” Chapman wrote in National Geographic in 1927, “were materially increased by the knowledge that I had such distinguished neighbors.”

 Although the camera-trap revolution took decades to flower, by the mid-2000s the devices — now cheap, reliable and digital — were one of wildlife biology’s most essential tools. Camera traps proved that cougars inhabit the Santa Monica Mountains; that mule deer readily use Wyoming’s highway underpasses; and that reintroduced fishers are flourishing on the Olympic Peninsula. And they’ve revealed wondrous relationships, like the coyote and the badger captured traipsing together through a California culvert on their way to hunt, like goofily mismatched partners in a buddy-cop comedy.


My own adventures in camera trapping began in central Colorado last winter, when, like Chapman, I resolved to learn the neighborhood. I set my cheap camera on national forest land, in a pine copse where hunters dumped deer carcasses. Soon my hard drive teemed with foxes gnawing at ribs and coyotes defecating in snow. I graduated to a wetland, where raccoons chased trout and moose rambled on spindly legs. I made the usual mistakes, pointing my camera toward tall grass whose every twitch triggered its motion-activated shutter. Yet my frequent errors only emphasized my occasional successes: Once you sift through a thousand videos of waving reeds, a single otter becomes all the more precious, like gold panned from a creek.

 When I learned about Snapshot, I knew I had to take part, thereby recasting my time-consuming hobby as legitimate inquiry. The project, which began in 2019 and is now jointly run by the Smithsonian’s Conservation Biology Institute and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, enlists biologists and community scientists to set up cameras within their local milieus and upload the photos to a database. The pictures’ subjects are automatically identified by machine-learning software — trust me, no one wants to page through 4,000 photos of the same golden-mantled ground squirrel — and made available to any interested researcher. Roland Kays, the North Carolina State University biologist who co-founded the project, told me that it would eventually create a long-term data set showing regional and national trends. “After five or six years, now you can really start to see how species are doing,” Kays said. If bobcats are declining in Arizona, black bears urbanizing in Washington, or California’s gray foxes shifting north with climate change, camera traps can find out.



I asked Kays how long he expected Snapshot to continue. He shrugged. “Forever.”

Snapshot has grown: In 2022, its coordinators began to loan cameras to universities and organizations that didn’t have their own, including two tribal colleges in Montana, Fort Peck Community College and the Fort Belknap Reservation’s Aaniiih Nakoda College. Rooney has also begun engaging with tribal colleges on Navajo and Lakota land — both to expand the project to reservations, which are among America’s most biodiverse landscapes, and to provide opportunities for young Native biologists. “It was a cool experience for our students, because a lot of them haven’t really done this,” Michael Kinsey, co-director of Aaniiih Nakoda’s research and education center and an enrolled member of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, told me. “Getting them to understand what the prairie ecosystem looks like, where these animals are moving, how to manage the data.” To camera-trap is to understand the world you inhabit.




ONCE I JOINED SNAPSHOT, I needed a place to survey. A friend’s family owns 200 acres abutting Colorado’s Collegiate Peaks Wilderness, so one late-August afternoon we set our cameras there. (My single cheap camera was more toy than tool, so Kays and project co-founder Bill McShea loaned me eight Reconyxes — heavy-duty devices the approximate size and density of a brick.) We targeted dry washes and old logging two-tracks that afforded ready-made game trails, and beaver dams that created bridges over creeks. The world was strewn with the creaturely signs that Annie Dillard called “pennies cast broadside from a generous hand” — coyote scat, bear prints, elk rubs inscribed on aspen bark. The land felt rich with possibility, as though at any moment a cougar would glide out of the trees to bless our mission.

In this sense, camera trapping restores some of humankind’s most ancient relationships. “Animals,” British critic John Berger wrote in his 1980 book, About Looking, “first entered the imagination as messengers and promises.” They were our food, and sometimes our predators, but they were also metaphors, symbols and partners. Tortoises supported the world; elephants taught people to pound millet. The Anthropocene both killed wild animals and severed our connections with them. Evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson called our modern era the Eremocene, the Age of Loneliness, while botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer described us as suffering from “estrangement from the rest of Creation.” Once, we belonged to Animalia; then we conquered it. It’s lonely at the top.

 If the Anthropocene has estranged us from creation, camera traps help us get reacquainted. Over two months, my cameras revealed an astonishing menagerie of non-human modes of being. A beaver hauled himself onto an old dam to evaluate its worthiness for renovation; a raccoon darted along its crest like an acrobat on a tightrope; a bobcat sauntered through the grass with archetypal feline haughtiness. Humans are inherently disruptive, and it’s nearly impossible to observe a creature in person without influencing its behavior; every animal we see is, in a sense, a reflection of ourselves. Camera traps document the world undistorted.

 I’m not sure how much my photos will contribute to science. There were technical difficulties: Batteries died, fallen branches obscured lenses, memory cards clogged with thousands of photos of my old nemesis, windblown grass. Still, those cameras alleviated my own estrangement, and captured dozens of intimate moments that I never would have witnessed without their aid: the gray fox wandering the ponderosa grove, eyes bright and alert; the bull elk escorting his harem down a draw; the Abert’s squirrel that climbed atop a rotting stump to greet the sun as it fell slantwise through golden aspen. Each creature a messenger and a promise, yes — but also a wild life unto itself, one that continued long after it passed beyond the frame and out of human ken.



Ben Goldfarb is a High Country News correspondent and the author of Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They MatterHis next book, on the science of road ecology, will be published by W.W. Norton in 2023.

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