insight - Greg Marshall and Crittercam
Written by Karen Martin
Marine biologist and film maker Greg Marshall is the man behind the National Geographic Crittercam, a research tool that allows rare views of the private lives of wild animals.
“My passion arose from childhood when my family used to go to the ocean often,” explains Greg. My brother and I spent a huge amount of time exploring underwater; we would literally spend six to eight hours a day snorkelling and exploring, and seeing who could last the longest, go the deepest, find the most unusual thing. So I’ve just been captivated by the ocean and the unknown ever since.
“Interestingly enough, I didn’t think I could pursue a career in marine biology, so I planned to go to law school. But when I got out I just sat down one day and made a list of things that I was inspired by and most passionate about, and the thing at the top of that list, after all those years, was still marine biology,” he says. “So I then spent another year studying a whole suite of undergraduate science courses that would enable me to get into graduate school and then started graduate school a year after that in marine biology.”
It was whilst still at graduate school that Greg invented the concept of the Crittercam. “I lived in Belize for three years when I was in graduate school,” explains Greg. “I was running a research programme there and I was frustrated that relatively few people knew about or cared about the conservation problem that I was studying. So I just sat down again and thought, ‘How can I connect with people and get them to understand the environmental problem I’m trying to address, and get them to care enough to engage in conservation?’ I decided to make a film. I hadn’t made a film before but they had always been a wonderful way for me to get exposed to new ideas, new species, and new issues, so I decided it might be a great way to connect with people.
“Because I was in grad school and had no money I had to build my own underwater camera system,” says Greg. “It was actually in the process of making that film – during a fortuitous moment with a shark while I was diving – that the Crittercam idea was born. The shark had a remora suckled to its belly, and I imagined in that moment: ‘What if I could transform this camera that I had just built into something that looked like and felt like the remora to a shark? What an amazing experience we could have riding along with that shark into its world.’”
That first encounter with the shark happened in 1986, when Greg realised the potential of the camera as a phenomenal research tool, and also to generate images that could be used to tell the stories of the discoveries that he made, and the stories of the animals. “I immediately came to National Geographic thereafter, and got a very positive reception, but it wasn’t until 1991 that I received my first research grant from National Geographic,” he says. “In 92 I got another research grant and in 93 I became permanently associated with the National Geographic ‘family’ – and I’ve been here in a full-time capacity ever since.”
There is no typical day for Greg Marshall. He spends half of the year in the field, doing research projects or developing relationships to get a programme into the field, as well as writing research papers, talking at science conferences, and communicating the results of his research. Collaborating with scientists worldwide, Greg and his team have deployed Crittercam on several species of animals to help investigate biological mysteries.
“Our Crittercam systems not only record video but they also record a whole suite of other environmental data, like temperature, pressure, accelerometry, magnetometry, and light levels, to help contextualise the video and audio information that we’re gathering,” explains Greg. “And that context is very important: you know how deep the animal is swimming when it’s exhibiting a particular behaviour, for example.
“I’m always amazed at the things that we learn; it’s hard to do a deployment on an animal that we don’t know and not learn something new, because for the most part we’re seeing things that we’ve not been able to see before. So many deployments offer a novel insight.
“We were working with sperm whales in the Azores a few years ago,” he goes on to say. “At the time we hadn’t quite figured out the best way to do deployments so we would kayak up to the whales or they would come up and investigate us, and I would hand-deploy the Crittercam system on the sperm whale’s back. Well, it may take a day or two to successfully do this, because they’re big whales, it’s a big ocean, and they’re not always curious enough to come right up to you. There was one particular day when we finally got a deployment and the whale swam down and disappeared from sight, but 14–15 seconds later the Crittercam system was bobbing on the surface!
“There’s the discouraging moment, but…fortunately I watched that video that evening and those are some of the most fascinating few seconds that we’ve ever recorded,” he says. “The footage suggested some kind of – and we haven’t been able to confirm this yet but that’s why we continue this work; that’s why it’s so exciting – cooperative grooming in whales. We know it happens with the great apes but we don’t know that it happens with whales. It’s all these little things that we discover that make it so exciting all the time and although I’ve been doing this for years it’s still very, very exciting. I think we really have just scratched the surface of everything that we’re going to learn from this capability.”
Whale shark, Ningaloo, Australia
Lion cubs and mother, Kenya
Leopard seal at sunset, Antarctica
See footage at http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/crittercam/
Greg Marshall and his team are currently working with sperm whales in the Azores again; with alligators in Florida; and are expecting to start a project with Beluga whales in the Arctic. They are also working with whale sharks in Australia; jaguars in Brazil; and hoping to study caribou and coyotes in Newfoundland. “There are lots of great projects going on, and lots of things we don’t know and we can now start to understand,” says Greg.
Facts & figures
The total number of animals to have had Crittercam on them is approximately 60–65. “Not all of those have been long-term research projects,” says Greg. “In almost every case we work with captive animals, or domesticated animals first, to see if the technology we’ve developed is appropriate to those animals and would be appropriate to deploy on a wild animal.” Of the 65 or so pilot projects, 40–45 turned into long-term research projects.
“In the beginning of almost any project we keep the deployments fairly short – a matter of hours or a couple of days,” explains Greg. “Generally speaking, our deployments will last two weeks or so. But in some cases we’ve worked with animals and done two- or three-month deployments, but those are rare.”
The largest animal to have Crittercam is the blue whale, and the smallest – in terms of actual research projects – is the emperor penguin.
Crittercam attachment methods include suction cup, harness, fin clamp, and safe adhesive.