The Crittercam: A Firsthand Look at the Animal World

In 1986, a marine biologist named Greg Marshall was diving off the coast of Belize when he saw a shark swim by with something riding on its back. It was a sucker fish, also called a remora, hitching a ride through the ocean depths.

"In that moment it occurred to me what an amazing experience of the shark's life the remora has," said Marshall.

Marshall had an idea -- to attach a video camera to animals' backs -- studying their behaviors from a point of view nobody had ever seen before.

What Marshall saw more than 20 years ago opened doors for marine and animal researchers. On Thursday, researchers from around the world arrived in Washington for a series of meetings to discuss the findings of Marshall's invention. It's called the "crittercam."

With the help of National Geographic, Marshall has developed a series of different cameras that collect video, sound and other data for about 60 different species. The cameras have been deployed about 500 times.

"Understanding animals in their place on the planet helps us figure out what they need to sustain themselves, and that tells us how to conserve and protect them," said Marshall.

The crittercam has proven to be crucial for solving a mystery surrounding the Hawaiian monk seal. With only 11,000 of the endangered animals struggling for survival, researchers had thought that one of the animal's biggest problems was difficulty finding enough food.

Scientists like Dr. Charles Littnan, who has spent years studying the seals, thought they were only feeding at shallow depths. The crittercam revealed the seals were actually headed to deeper water to eat.

"I think everyone was a little surprised and maybe a bit shocked," said Littnan, an ecologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "They were doing things entirely different than we thought."

Littnan said the crittercam footage was instrumental in expanding the protective area set aside for the seals.

The crittercam is not only used on aquatic life, but has been used to learn more about land animals including lions and grizzly bears -- even a Washington, D.C., alley cat.

Marshall recounted the story of a female grizzly bear outfitted with a crittercam.

"The scientist that we were working with said, 'It's not going to be very interesting because she'll disappear into the woods and she'll avoid all the other bears and won't eat for 48 hours,'" Marshall said.

But the camera revealed something far different: The bear not only was eating within 20 minutes, she was eating things that researchers hadn't expected.

"Within 30 minutes, she was socializing with other bears," Marshall said. "It was just completely new insight about how these animals actually operate in their own world."

Littnan said that without the use of a crittercam, researchers might not know what they know today.

"A picture's worth a thousand words. It's so much more powerful," he said. "We could have spent years assuming or working up to the knowledge we got in just a few moments."