Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Trivia Question of the Week

This week's Trivia Question comes to you from our trail cameras! It's a little tougher this week:

What type of animal was captured in this photograph?

(You can click the image to view a larger version)

Hint #1: This photo was taken with an infrared flash at night, so colors won't be there to help you.

Hint #2: The animal in question is in the bottom left-hand part of the frame.

Hint #3: It may seem obvious to some, but it's worth pointing out: this animal is nocturnal.

Hint #4: It's facing away from the camera-- what we're seeing here is, predominately, its back.

Hint #5: This animal is a bird of prey.


Did you guess Great Horned Owl? If you did, congratulations! Want to helps us identify some other animals?

One of the trickiest aspects of using trail cameras is that the photographs we capture aren't always straightforward. Animals sometimes move quickly across the frame, and the shutter speed of the cameras won't be high enough to prevent motion blur. Sometimes, animals get too close to the cameras and the flash reflects back into the lens, causing white-out or blown highlights. Some animals will be hovering around the edges of the camera's field of view, and only parts of them- tails, feet, the curve of their rump- might end up being captured. Photos taken at night can be particularly difficult because there are no colors. As humans, we rely on colors and color patterns to identify a lot of different animal species-- tough to do when everything is showing in gray-scale!

Did you have difficulty identifying the owl in this photograph? You're not alone. Correctly identifying the species in trail camera photographs is critical for later data analysis, so it can be time consuming and trying to sort through hundreds of photos and pick out the different types of animals in each. Sometimes we find images we really can't identify. With those, we have to do our best to determine the animal's family, at the very least. Is it a mustelid (member of the weasel family, like a mink, marten, ermine, otter, etc.)? Canid (coyote, wolf, fox)? Ursid (brown bear, black bear)?

We also rely a great deal on natural history (knowledge of the animals living in an area and their habits) and contextual cues. For example, wolves aren't likely to be seen close to town, so an shaky image of something dog-like is probably a coyote or domestic dog. River otters won't be found far from water, so an image of a large weasel-like animal captured with a camera on a high altitude trail a mile away from the nearest stream is probably a marten. If one set of photographs is blurry, but there is a photo taken a couple minutes before or afterward of a mink, the blurry photos are probably also mink-- it's uncommon to capture photographs of two completely different animals within a few minutes of one another, unless they're, say, different types of birds feeding along a spawning area.

Here are a few other tricky photos for you to try out:

See the hump in the bottom part of the frame? Any guesses? This one is probably a marten.

In the lower part of the frame, just to the left of center, see the lighter-colored animal against the dark background? This is likely a mink.

See the weasel-like animal just below and left of the center of the photo? This one is probably a mink, too.

If you enjoyed looking at these photos and trying to figure out what you're seeing, you might be able to participate directly in projects like ours in the near future. Yiwei is currently working on developing an interactive game for Facebook that will allow users to work in teams to help tag photos just like these.

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