The Joys of Camera-Trapping

Giant Armadillo, emerging from den, Pantanal, Brazil

This is one of my favorite shots from my recent trip to Brazil – and I never tripped the shutter. That was done by the animal himself, a rarely-photographed Giant Armadillo.  (Although it may look like the common Texan 9-banded armadillo, this puppy is 3.5 feet long and can weigh upwards of 75 pounds.)

Only a handful of pictures of this threatened species have ever been taken in the wild, and it is easy to see why – they are strictly nocturnal, and spend 2/3 of their lives in underground burrows. So how do you go about getting a picture of one? By setting a camera trap at the entrance of an active burrow.  If all goes well, the camera (and the armadillo) will do its job, and the pictures will be there in the morning.

This was the first image I got on the first of 8 nights and it is still my favorite, an intimate portrait of a curious giant, just waking up after sleeping through another hot tropical day. I was particularly delighted that he rose up and showed off his massive digging claws, unique to the species.

The camera trap I used (a Trailmaster TM1550) uses an infrared beam to trigger the shutter, which I carefully placed directly across the entrance to the burrow. It worked better than I could have imagined, and for the next week, I got pictures every night. (These animals are almost blind, so I had no sense that the flashes disturbed them)

However, telling the story of a little-known creature like this takes more than handsome portraits. You also need action and behavior. These, however, are much harder to get since it means predicting where the animal will be to position the infrared trigger. These animals wander large territories and there are literally thousands of trails for them to follow, or termite mounds for them to raid. It would take hundreds of camera traps – or incredible luck – to be in the right place on the right night.

Giant Armadillo (Priodontes maximus) WILD, Pantanal, Brazil

But when I go back next season to continue this project, we will be trying to solve these problems, all to document the life of an animal many people (even those that live in the Pantanal) have never seen.  Wish me luck.

There are a number of camera trap systems on the market today, and all have had an enormous impact on wildlife biology. Camera traps have become invaluable tools for recording the presence, and life history, of rare animals like these.

Nikon D300, 18-200mm lens, SB800 strobes, Trailmaster camera trap system