This 2013 photo from a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service motion-activated camera shows a bighorn sheep at the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona. The cameras help scientists and provide amusing photos. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via AP)
What’s with the photos of bighorn sheep that seem to say “cheese”?
Some critters caught by motion-detecting wildlife cameras look as though they are striking a pose. But it’s not just show business. As these devices get ever smaller, cheaper and more reliable, scientists across the United States are using them to track hard-to-find creatures like never before.
“There’s no doubt — it is an incredible tool to acquire data on wildlife,” said Grant Harris, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wildlife biologist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Remote cameras have photographed a wide variety of wildlife, including small desert cats called ocelots and snow-loving lynx high in the Northern Rockies.
This 2011 photo shows an elephant seal in the Channel Islands National Park off the coast of Southern California. The seal appears to be striking a pose for the camera. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via AP)
Harris mentioned photos of javelinas (pronounced ha-veh-LEEN-uhs), which are piglike desert mammals, and coatimundi, members of the raccoon family, taken farther north recently. That could mean global warming is expanding their range, he said.
Other scientists who are using remote cameras include researchers with the Wyoming Migration Initiative, who use global positioning to map the movements of elk, mule deer and antelope in and around Yellowstone National Park. They have only so many collars available to track animals, meaning there’s a limit to the Global Positioning System data they can gather, said Matthew Kauffman, a University of Wyoming associate professor and initiative director.
“You see one animal migrating, you don’t know if it’s migrating by itself, if it’s migrating with a calf, or if it’s migrating with 40 other animals,” Kauffman said.
A golden eagle confronts a desert bighorn sheep in a photo from Desert National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada. Scientists can track migration patterns with the motion-activated cameras. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via AP)
Remote cameras — which can be left in the backcountry for days, weeks, even months — help fill in the blanks by showing how many animals are on the move over a given period, he said. Where to put them requires careful thought. Researchers want good images but also good data about the population, Harris said.
As with all human intrusion into nature, remote cameras have downsides. Animals such as wolverines and bears have been known to attack them, though whether out of curiosity or aggression is hard to say.
Also, remote cameras have become popular tools to help hunters scout for game, which has led to a debate over whether that is fair. Then there’s the idea about going into nature to get away from the trappings of the digital age.
But to answer that original question: Bighorn sheep that look like they’re smiling probably aren’t saying “cheese,” but curling back their upper lip to sniff scents. Scientists call it a flehmen (FLAY-men) response, Harris said.
But would they do it if a person showed up with a camera? It’s possible, but they might be too sheepish.