By Monica Lasky on August 14, 2018
I think most of us can agree that it’s always exciting to see photos of cute little fawns in lush meadows, big black bears roaming the woods, and male turkey toms displaying their beautiful, multi-colored plumage. But why does Candid Critters, along with many other scientists, care so much about photos of wildlife? Are biologists just excited to see adorable animals like the rest of us, or is there a purpose to their interest?
It can be surprising how much you can learn about an animal or local species populations just from a photograph. Our camera traps provide scientists a view into the behavior, ecology, and population status of wildlife across state. As this data accumulates, scientists can come to interesting conclusions based on camera trap photo collections, providing North Carolina citizens and wildlife managers alike more information about the species found in the area.
At this point, I’m sure some of you may be thinking, So, I get why scientists care now, but how do camera traps affect the rest of us?
Scientists provide data to the public about wildlife, but the question many of us still ask is why we should care about how many deer are living in North Carolina, or why finding feral pigs in a new area should be interesting.
Let’s start with an example: why is knowing the size of local deer populations important to citizens? I’m sure a lot of you have noticed, but deer – along with a lot of other wildlife – don’t understand the rules of the road. They are commonly running out in front of drivers, and lead to many road fatalities every year. Plus, deer are carriers of the black-legged tick, a known vector for the spread of Lyme disease. In fact, deer and black-legged ticks are so commonly found within the same area that this tick species is commonly referred to as the deer tick. If you’ve heard of Lyme disease, you’ll know that it’s not like your average cold or flu – if left untreated, Lyme disease can lead to arthritis or even cardiac or neurological disorders. Thus, if a citizen of Siler City was told that deer were more common in her area than in others, then she can be sure to be more wary while driving around town or walking through the woods.
Diseases are always a threat, but let’s say that a small population of feral pigs have been discovered in your area. They aren’t a common nuisance on the road or in cities, and they haven’t been associated with the spread of Lyme disease. So, why should you care?
Feral pigs are not native to North Carolina; this is a species that was originally from the Europe, and was brought over by settlers in the 1500s. These pigs were a great source of protein, but some escaped or were released into the North American wilderness. Since then, these pigs have have left a swath of destruction across the continent. Feral pigs dig up dirt and vegetation with their snout when they’re looking for food, a behavior known as “rooting”. It may be kind of cute to watch, but when feral pigs uproot plants, they loosen the soil and cause significant erosion. And, if the pigs are consuming the plants in the area, then there is less food available for local wildlife. Furthermore, we may not think of them as predators, but feral pigs are considered omnivores and will eat plants along with small creatures such as insects, birds, and even small mammals(1).
Wildlife aren’t the only animals affected by this species, either. Feral pigs cost the U.S. an estimated $1.5 billion each year in damages and population management costs(2). Their destructive nature and negative impacts on both humanity and local ecosystems allow scientists to categorize feral pigs as an invasive species, which is an organism that is not native to an area and causes harm to whatever lives there. As we can see, these pigs definitely cause harm, not only to other animals, but to the country’s economic status. Thus, if you found out that feral pigs were recently discovered in your area, you may be worried about the impacts this may have on your local wildlife, farms, or even a well-groomed backyard.
Now, there are, of course, so many more positives than negatives that can come from local wildlife. For example, animals such as hummingbirds, bats, and bees help pollinate plants on which other wildlife are dependent, as well as the crops that we cultivate for food. Snakes help control household pests such as mice and rats, which easily contaminate our food sources with deadly pathogens. Beaver can cause changes the landscape that benefit several species. Even vultures have their place: these featherless-headed birds act as nature’s clean-up crew, and are a key link in local food chains.
We’ve listed just a few examples of species that impact us on an everyday basis. Most, if not all, of the animals from our camera traps impact human existence along with the lives of the other species in the habitats in which they are found. So, the next time you set your camera for Candid Critters, remember that what your photos discover is not only something that’s interesting to scientists, but also something that will affect you, your children, and the rest of the world.
“The internal machinery of life, the chemistry of the parts, is something beautiful. And, it turns out, all life is interconnected with all other life.”
– Richard P. Feynman
(1) Feral pig information courtesy of Lake Forest College.
(2) Numbers reported by PLOS Blogs.