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Virtual Worlds:
    Deep Sea

National Science Foundation
About Crittercam

Image cutline: A Hawaiian monk seal wears Crittercam
A Hawaiian monk seal
wears Crittercam

National Geographic's Crittercam is a research tool designed to be worn by wild animals. It combines video and audio recording with collection of environmental data such as depth, temperature, and acceleration.

These compact systems allow scientists to study animal behavior without interference by a human observer. Combining solid data with gripping imagery, Crittercam brings the animal's point of view to the scientific community and a conservation message to worldwide television audiences.

For more than a decade Crittercam has given us insight into the lives of whales, sharks, seals and sea lions, sea turtles, penguins, manatees, and other marine animals. In 2002 the first prototype of a terrestrial Crittercam (designed for land animals) survived its maiden voyage on a wild African lion, opening the door to a whole new world of animal-borne imaging research.

But what did it take to make Crittercam a reality?

Origin of Crittercam
Image cutline: Greg Marshall at work on a Crittercam
Greg Marshall at work on a Crittercam

Crittercam was conceived in 1986 by marine biologist and filmmaker Greg Marshall. A shark approached Greg during a diving trip off Belize, then disappeared into the murk with three quick strokes of its tail. Greg noticed a remora (or sucker fish) clinging to the shark.

As Greg watched the shark disappear, it occurred to him that if he could put a camera in the place of the remora, he could see the shark's behavior unfold without disturbing the shark.

First Prototypes
Image cutline: The first Crittercam prototype on a turtle
The first Crittercam
prototype on a turtle

A struggling graduate student, Greg needed funding for his fledgling project. With small research grants from the American Museum of Natural History and his alma mater—the State University of New York at Stony Brook—he bought one of the first handheld video cameras and fitted it into a fiberglass housing.

Strapped to the back of a captive loggerhead turtle, the awkward prototype, amazingly, didn't seem to bother its host. The turtle just went about her business—the first indication that Crittercam had potential as a research tool.

But true biology happens in the wild. How would free-roaming animals take to Crittercam?

To convince the scientific community that his concept had potential, Greg hit the road. He presented his idea at biological conferences and talked to any behavioral ecologist who would listen.

But this was the late 1980s—compact video technology was brand new. Strapping a camera to a wild animal to study its behavior seemed, to many, too far-out to be taken seriously. Greg raised eyebrows, but no funds.

Frustrated, but undaunted, Greg contacted the David E. Luginbuhl Foundation, which decided to take a risk on Crittercam. Dedicated to the study and conservation of highly endangered leatherback sea turtles—which spend 99.9 percent of their time at sea—the foundation understood the potential of a tool that would allow access to the leatherback's alien world.

After Greg deployed his first field-worthy Crittercam on a nesting leatherback in St. Croix in 1989, the turtle steered her massive body through the crashing surf and into the pitch-black ocean.

The deployment was a sink-or-swim test for Crittercam. When Greg lost the system's radio signal in the early morning hours, the project effectively sank. The nesting female returned to the beach seven days later—without Crittercam.

National Geographic Support
Image cutline: Crittercam point of view of a penguin targeting an ice fish
Crittercam point of view of
a penguin targeting an ice fish

It took two more years of beating the drums of the animal-borne imaging concept before Greg happened to meet John Bredar, a visionary producer at National Geographic Television. John immediately recognized Crittercam's potential for "the increase and diffusion of geographic knowledge"—the National Geographic Society's long-held mission.

With John's help, Greg secured his first significant development grant from the National Geographic Society.

In early 1992 Greg successfully deployed vastly improved prototypes on free-swimming sharks and sea turtles. And in winter 1992 he joined marine biologist John Francis for the first marine mammal Crittercam deployment, on a Juan Fernandez fur seal. The Crittercam research program was off and running in earnest.

Crittercam Today
Image cutline: The evolution of Crittercam
The evolution of Crittercam

More than a decade later Greg heads the Remote Imaging Program at National Geographic. Collaborating with scientists worldwide, Greg and his team have deployed Crittercam on hundreds of animals to help investigate biological mysteries.

With Frank Parrish of the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, they've plunged to new depths to define the foraging habitats of the critically endangered Hawaiian monk seal. With physiologist Paul Ponganis and marine biologist Gerry Kooyman of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, they've dived beneath the Antarctic ice to hunt with emperor penguins.

With Mike Heithaus (host of the Crittercam television series) the team tackled the puzzle of how the tiger shark influences its community. They've cut through the murky waters of Southeast Alaska to reveal humpback whales' trademark "bubble net" feeding tactic with biologist Fred Sharpe. They've followed New Zealand sea lions to their foraging grounds with biologist Nick Gales. And they've stalked the ice with a leopard seal with mammalogist Tracey Rogers.

As part of an early 2003 National Geographic collaboration with biologist Laurence Frank, Crittercam roamed the African night on the back of a hunting lion. In summer 2003 it accompanied a grizzly bear into the thick of Alaska's temperate rain forest on a project with biologist LaVern Beier.

Each of these projects was driven by science—by a need to answer a research question that could not be addressed any other way. Today we are experiencing life from the animal's point of view, thanks to Crittercam.

The Future
The Crittercam story is just beginning. In the Remote Imaging laboratory at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C., Greg and his engineering team, led by Mehdi Bakhtiari, are constantly working to make Crittercam smaller, lighter, and more hydrodynamic.

The smaller the systems, the more species that can be studied with Crittercam. The more powerful the instrument, the more information it can gather to give context to the images. The more refined the attachment methods—suction cup, harness, fin clamp, safe adhesive—the better the chances of deploying and recovering Crittercam.

On the terrestrial Crittercam front, engineers David Rasch and Mehdi Bakhtiari have helped make history by designing new systems for the first ever deployments of Crittercams on wild land animals.

Time Line
1986 Inspiration for animal-borne imaging concept (Crittercam) and beginning of design process.
1987First prototype deployment, on captive loggerhead sea turtle.
1988-89First deployments on alligators, and in the wild with leatherback sea turtles. Fiberglass system lost at sea.
1991Reconfiguration into streamlined cylindrical system.
1992Deployments on tiger shark, bull shark, loggerhead turtle, Juan Fernandez fur seal.
1993Improved attachment method for seals—harness replaced by safe adhesive patch. Deployments on wild elephant seal, great white shark.
1994Improved remote control and release systems. Integration of audio-recording capabilities. Deployments on wild harbor seals, Steller sea lions.
1995Integration of data-collecting capabilities. Increase in recording time, from two hours to three hours. Field deployments on harbor seals, Hawaiian monk seals. First sperm whale prototype, with titanium housing (to withstand water pressures of deep dives). First terrestrial Crittercam prototype, on housecat.
1996Improvements to sperm whale prototype (satellite transmitter, hydrophone, suction-cup attachment).
1997First digital-video prototype, deployed on narwhal.
1998Improved suction cup deployment method on humpback whales, using handheld pole.
1999Improved fin-clamp deployment method for tiger sharks. Decreased system size—outer diameter of fewer than 3.5 inches (9 centimeters). First deployments on emperor penguins.
2000Increased recording time, from three hours to six hours.
2001Decreased system size—outer diameter of fewer than 3 inches (7.7 centimeters).
2002First successful deployments on wild juvenile Hawaiian monk seals.
2003Deployment of terrestrial Crittercam on lions, grizzly bears, and hyenas.
2004Increase in data-collecting capabilities. Developed pole-deployed fin-clamp system for sharks. Deployments on five new species, including ragged-toothed sharks, bronze whalers (sharks), Northern right whales, ringed seals, and blue marlin.
2005 Development work on hard-drive video capture system and 3-D tracking data collection. New project with humpback whales on their mating ground in Hawaii.


Keep the Crittercams on!
Visit the new
Crittercam Exhibition.

Watch these videos of Crittercam in action: Crittercam, Tiger Sharks vs. Turtles and Midnight Marauding Lions.