Behind the scenes: filming Animals with Cameras II

By Dale Shaw

Scientific and technological advances have helped experts to understand the curious daily routines of creatures.

Mysterious animal behaviours that may previously have gone unseen can now be observed and recorded. Armed with this information, experts can develop conservation practices with more accuracy.

One way to observe our animal kingdom is via camera observation. Through discrete and lightweight cameras, follow up series Animals with Cameras II seeks to reveal groundbreaking new animal behaviours to best ensure their survival. By fixing a camera directly onto an animal, you get to see their unique perspective and witness uncharted elements of their existence.

Birds fighting for a fish underwater
Armed with more intricate information, experts can develop conservation practices with more accuracy. © Sallye I Shutterstock
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Why fix a camera? 

Closely monitored recording devices help to answer much-needed questions about animal behaviours that we may not be able to obtain otherwise. During the filming of Animals With Cameras II, the BBC Natural History Unit partnered with a number of leading scientists from around the world specialising in the creatures concerned. Together, they developed innovative filming techniques to make sure the animal’s welfare was at the heart of the project.

Koala resting its eyes whilst up a tree
Closely monitored recording devices help to answer much-needed questions about animal behaviours that we may not be able to obtain otherwise. © John Carnemolla I Shutterstock

By attaching a camera directly onto the body of an animal, the creature concerned can do the filming themselves, revealing environments that cameras couldn’t access and parts of their lives that these subjects hadn’t previously shared.

How is it done? 

The science always led the way in the deployment of these on-board animal cameras. Before any technology came close to fur, scale or skin, an expert in that particular field offered advice on the size, weight and design of the equipment. Strict limits were set on the dimensions of the camera as well as the duration for which the device would be attached for.

There was no ‘one size fits all’ for the equipment used. Every single device was meticulously designed for that particular animal’s body shape, habitat and temperament. They were developed to allow an animal to easily remove them if they were irritated by its presence and extended research was undertaken to ensure the optimum balance and comfort levels were achieved.

To save wildlife, first we need to understand it."

Dr Tristan Guttridge Shark Scientist

What were the challenges? 

The local habitat of the animal in question also had to be factored in. The cameras were designed to be non-obtrusive to make sure that no unnecessary attention was drawn to the creature carrying it. Equally, it had to be comfortable for the wearer. The cameras themselves had to have enough battery power to film for an acceptable length of time while still functioning in extreme heat, the bitter cold or in deep distances underwater.

The crew also had to decide when and where to attach the cameras. They needed to be activated at a particular time of day, or during a particular moment in an animal’s life, when it was about to embark in scientifically rich behaviour. The camera also needed to be able to record for a valuable length of time and released in a place where it could be retrieved successfully.

Kangaroo on beach
The crew had to decide carefully where and when to attach the cameras. © Worldswildlifewonders I Shutterstock

For instance, with the cameras attached to the koalas, infrared lenses were used to record their activities at night, without the animal’s knowledge, and a remote mechanism released the camera collar once the footage was obtained.

The process of actually attaching the equipment to an animal was also a tricky proposition. The subjects selected for a camera were often ones already under supervision by a scientific expert. The animal would be sedated while undergoing a health check, and the camera fitted before they regained consciousness.

What technical innovations were developed? 

Each animal provided their own distinct set of criteria, and problems, when it came to camera design and fitting. A camera mounted with suction cups was incapable of sticking to the distinctly rough shell of the loggerhead turtle. As a suitable alternative, a glue was designed that would degrade in a controlled way, jettisoning the camera after a fixed amount of time had elapsed. This in turn also allowed the crew to approximate where the camera would be eventually released.

Gannets plunge into the ocean at an incredible 100km per hour, hitting the water with incredible force.7 To see if the camera could survive this kind of treatment, it was designed in a bullet shape to minimise drag and offer aerodynamic protection. This functionality was tested by attaching it the camera to an arrow, which was fired at speed into the sea to ensure it could take the shock.

Kangaroos are not known for sitting still or residing in temperate conditions. To offset the bouncing locomotion of the roos as they travelled, their lightweight cameras were fitted with neoprene, a material that stretched as the animals jumped, allowing for more focussed images. The equipment was also designed to cope with the extreme heat of the Australian outback.

Turtle swimming in the water
Every single device was meticulously designed for that particular animal’s body shape, habitat and temperament. © Matteo photos I Shutterstock

We don’t know what the turtles are doing when they are in the water. We know where they go, but we don’t know what they do.”

Albert Taxonera Co-director, Project Biodiversity More from

Similarly, the reef sharks that appeared in the programme presented a variety of quandaries. The cameras needed to be able to function effectively beneath the waves of the sea. This equipment had to withstand the incredible pressure of the ocean as the sharks dived deep amongst the coral reefs. It was also paramount that it wouldn’t inhibit the animal as it swam.

The fin mounted camera designed was tested on a tame shark in the UK to ensure maximum comfort and hydrodynamic buoyancy. It also it featured a clamp featuring a galvanic metal bar which slowly dissolved in seawater at a specific rate. Once this bar had disintegrated, the clamp would spring open and the camera would float to the ocean surface on foam designed to survive the incredible pressures of the deep ocean.

Seal looking towards the camera
The evidence gathered from the cameras surpassed scientists' expectations. © Devin Powers I Shutterstock

What was discovered?

Attaching cameras to animals was intended to provide scientists with vital, uncharted information. But the evidence gathered surpassed their expectations. For example, loggerhead turtles, supposed solitary animals, were witnessed socialising and also feeding on the algae and barnacles that naturally grows on the shell of a fellow turtle.  One turtle was seen trying to feed through a discarded fishing net, highlighting the dangers sea detritus can have on marine life.

Reef sharks were revealed to dive far deeper than previously thought. Experts were also able to witness these creatures travel through tiny apertures in the coral as they attempted to track down prey. Gannets were observed using other sea-life, such as dolphins and whales, to help them find food. 

Koala faces the camera
The koala-cam revealed that they spend much more time on the ground than previously thought. © Yatra I Shutterstock 

The koala-cam provided a wealth of information, illustrating that the animals were far more active at night than previously thought. It also turns out that koalas spend much more time on the ground than previously thought. Scientists discovered that they must travel and seek out different kinds of Eucalypt to give themselves a sufficient diet. The curious plight of the eastern grey kangaroo was also discovered. The cameras revealed these creatures desperately foraging for grass and weeds in and amongst the sand dunes. Nearby urban sprawl and busy new roads had severely limited their feeding options, and therefore driven them to find food in habitats they would usually avoid.

Through the use of this remarkable, innovative technology, footage was obtained from locations unreachable by a human camera crew. Completely natural behaviour was observed and indispensable scientific insight was gathered. Not only will these learnings serve to help with much needed conservation efforts, but will also help to protect their future habitats.

Featured image © Yatra I Shutterstock 


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