Smile, you're on candid bearcam

Biologists strap digital camera onto bruin

Posted: Sunday, October 27, 2002

ANCHORAGE - If you encounter a black bear in Anchorage during the next few weeks, remember not to run or back down. Oh, and one other thing: Smile if you can.

That bear might just be taking your picture.

State biologists tranquilized a male black bear in town recently week and slipped a "bearcam" around its neck. The digital camera encased in a hermetically sealed metal box is believed to be the first of its kind used on a bear.

The camera prototype was designed by Telonics, an Arizona-based company that specializes in making equipment used in biological studies. The company made it at the request of Alaska Department of Fish and Game research biologist Sean Farley.

Farley said he hopes to someday use the same camera - or an improved version - to determine exactly what brown bears are preying on in places like the Nelchina basin and the Kenai Peninsula. He hopes to learn, for example, whether bears eat mostly ungulates, fish or berries.

But to test the equipment, he and other state biologists decided to put it first on an urban bear.

"It's cheaper and easier," Farley said. "This way I don't have to rent a helicopter" to pick up the collar or track the bear.

If it works, the equipment also could prove useful in learning about the behavior of urban bears.

The digital still camera is programmed to wait three days, then take a photo every five minutes for 24 hours to see if the camera will take pictures at night.

Images will be stored in the camera and won't be available for viewing until the camera is retrieved when the collar automatically detaches Thursday.

Assuming the camera lens doesn't get covered in slobber or aimed solely at a tuft of black hair, biologists could have in hand a series of snapshots showing how an urban bear spends its day. The images will be combined with tracking data to provide detailed behavioral information.

Given that the bear wearing the bearcam was something of a problem bear it could be illuminating, said Fish and Game Anchorage area biologist Rick Sinnott.

"We know bears get into trouble, and we know they eat garbage, but we don't know the frequency," Farley said. "We may be getting images of the gaping maw of a garbage can as the bear sticks its head into it."

This particular black bear was darted by Sinnott and assistant state biologist Jessy Coltrane in a southeast Anchorage neighborhood. When the biologists arrived, the bear was on a porch eating garbage. Biologists tranquilized it and fitted it with the camera. It soon woke up and walked away.

Biologists won't know if the test has succeeded until the collar falls off. A computer inside the unit will detach the collar automatically at the end of the month. Then biologists will retrieve the collar and a lab in California will download approximately 1,000 digital images. How they will organize the images for viewing is not yet clear.

Telonics co-owner Dave Beaty said many cameras have been attached to marine mammals to record their movements underwater. But he doesn't know of any digital cameras that have been used on terrestrial animals such as bears.

Designing a camera durable yet light enough to be used on a bear posed special challenges, he said.

"If the bear smacks it into a rock, will it take it?" he asked.

To bombproof the camera, which weighs about 2 pounds and is the size of a pop can, Beaty and his engineers put the camera inside a box made of a marine brass alloy with special plating. Then they soldered it shut and backfilled it with inert gas. The airtight casing should protect it and prevent the lens from fogging up when the temperature cools.

Beaty said his company charged Fish and Game a couple of thousand dollars for the camera. The actual cost of developing it was far more, but he said his company did many hours of design and programming work for free because it gave them a chance to try new things.

"It's a chance to think out of the box," Beaty said. "And it could result in some unusual scientific finding."

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