Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Camera Traps

We catches the sneaky night creepers.

Wildlife biologists and other natural scientists are using state-of-the-art technology to resurvey well-known terrain - and are coming up with some startling finds.

No one would expect the lightly wooded farmlands of central Ohio to hold any surprises, but that's what new evidence shows. Using tiny cameras and other surveillance technology developed for the new family of bird-sized military drones, biologists may soon have to rewrite their textbooks.

These minuscule cameras, which can capture both video and still images, along with microphones barely larger than a grain of rice, can operate for weeks powered by equally tiny batteries while remaining affixed to trees, shrubs, fence posts, or even the fenders of rusting, abandoned 1947 Chevy pickup trucks.

And they produce results so amazing that scientists are still unsure exactly what they are seeing. "We've apparently found a new species of large, previously unknown mammal," said Dr. James Phelps, head of what he refers to as the "Mission Impossible" team.

"We now realize that we had no idea what was going on out here, even though this land has been settled and farmed intensively for close to 200 years. We all appear to have been clueless. Really clueless."

As proof of this, Dr. Phelps showed several recent images of what appear to be large spotted ungulates grazing the land at night, their sharp, curved horns clearly visible in the moonlight. True, many of the images are somewhat blurred or out of focus but the animals are obviously too large to have gone unnoticed for this long. Though somehow they did.

But not all the photos show such animals. Many images, captured unnervingly close to farm houses - and, chillingly, also close to suburban residences - picture much smaller, furry, long-legged, long-tailed creatures with sharp pointed teeth, which sit by night atop parked vehicles or even on doorsteps, yawning and from time to time emitting curious yowling or "meowing" calls, as Dr. Phelps describes them.

"We really have a lot more work to do," said Phelps. "No one was aware that such strange undiscovered animals were present in heavily inhabited areas, that they came so close to homes, or that they apparently have no fear of humans - we need to get to the bottom of this. Until then, we urge caution. Anyone hiking, or especially anyone camping overnight in the forest may be at great risk. We just don't know."

More: First wild images of rare mammals.