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Wild world caught on camera

TEAM Network via AFP / Getty Images

A jaguar prowls through the Central Suriname Nature Reserve at night.

The individual scenes tell wonderful wildlife stories: A jaguar goes on the prowl during the night. An elephant takes a stroll through the jungle. A mountain gorilla strikes a pose with a baby on her back. But when you put together 52,000 of those hidden-camera scenes, you can see the bigger picture: The more territory you set aside for wild mammals, the more diversity you'll find. And soon you may be able to contribute to that bigger picture as well.

The tens of thousands of "Candid Camera" moments come from the first worldwide camera-trap mammal study, conducted by a consortium known as the Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring Network, or TEAM Network. In a study published by the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, scientists documented 105 species that showed up in nearly 52,000 images from seven protected areas in the Americas, Africa and Asia.

The camouflaged cameras were designed to snap pictures when they detect the heat signature of an animal nearby — whether it's a mouse opossum weighing just an ounce, or an African elephant weighing more than four tons. Wild creatures weren't the only things that were caught on camera: The traps also picked up pictures of tourists or poachers who happened to walk by.

WCS / TEAM Network via AFP - Getty Images

A mountain gorilla (Gorilla berengei berengei) lies in front of a hidden camera with a baby on its back in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

At each of the sites, 60 camera traps were set up for a month, with each camera covering a 2-square-kilometer area. Images for the TEAM project were collected between 2008 and 2010. The pictures showed plenty of cute animals, including giant anteaters, a curious chimpanzee, tapirs, jaguars and cougars. But the study's lead author, Jorge Ahumada of Conservation International, said the cuteness of the pictures was not the focus of the project.

"We're really concerned not about a particular species, but about the health of an ecosystem," he told me today.

Camera traps have been used before for a wide range of species-specific projects, including studies of shimmying bears, seldom-seen leopards and extremely rare rhinos. But the TEAM scientists are more interested in conducting a wider census of species in protected areas around the world. The results could suggest particular locales where conservationists and policymakers should concentrate their efforts.

"Sometimes we operate in the dark, because we don't have a systematic global effort," Ahumada said.

Trento Museum of Science / TEAM Network via AP

This image provided by the Trento Museum of Science shows an African elephant in Tanzania's Udzungwa Mountains on Oct. 11, 2009. It's one of almost 52,000 photos of 105 mammal species taken as part of the first global camera trap mammal study by the TEAM Network.

The scientists have already found that mammalian species diversity is related to how much land is set aside for a protected area, as well as how fragmented the area is. The Central Suriname Nature Reserve in South America had the most species show up on camera (28), while Laos' Nam Kading National Protected Area in Southeast Asia had the least (13). In the Laotian reserve, not a single insect-eating mammal was seen.

"The results of the study are important in that they confirm what we suspected: Habitat destruction is slowly but surely killing our planet’s mammal diversity," Ahumada said in a news release. "We take away two key findings from this research. First, protected areas matter: The bigger the forest they live in, the higher the number and diversity of species, body sizes and diet types. Second, some mammals seem more vulnerable to habitat loss than others: Insect-eating mammals — like anteaters, armadillos and some primates, are the first to disappear — while other groups, like herbivores, seem to be less sensitive."

TEAM Network via AFP - Getty Images

An ocelot walks by a camouflaged camera in Brazil's Manaus nature reserve. The picture is one of nearly 52,000 images collected by the TEAM Network.

Ahumada told me that reduced biodiversity could have a big impact on other environmental issues as well, including climate change and Earth's carbon balance.

"Some scientists suggested not too long ago that if you remove mammals from forests ... you will shift the forest community toward trees that will have much less wood, much less density of carbon per unit weight. That's an unintended consequence of not paying attention to these animals and the whole ecosystem," he said.

He said the findings reported today were just "an initial snapshot" of species diversity in protected areas. "Now, for some of these sites, we have four or five years of data," he added. The TEAM Network has already expanded from seven to 17 sites, and it's aiming to have camera traps in 40 protected areas around the world by 2013. That will provide a regularly updated census of mammalian species in the world's hot spots for biodiversity.

And who knows? Maybe someday there'll be a hot spot near you. Ahumada said he and his colleagues are planning to make their image-analysis software available to the public, so that anyone with a camera trap can gather data about the creatures that pass by.

"Involving citizens in science is great," he said. "The more information we have, the more we know is happening."

TEAM Network via AFP - Getty Images

A South American tapir (Tapirus terrestris) makes an appearance in a camera-trap photo taken in the Central Suriname Nature Reserve.

More about biodiversity:

The TEAM Network is a partnership involving Conservation International, the Missouri Botanical Garden, the Smithsonian Institution and the Wildlife Conservation Society. The effort is partially funded by those institutions and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

In addition to Ahumada, the authors of "Community Structure and Diversity of Tropical Forest Mammals: Data from a Global Camera Trap Network" include Carlos E.F. Silva, Krisna Gajapersad, Chris Hallam, Johanna Hurtado, Emanuel Martin, Alex McWilliam, Badru Mugerwa, Tim O'Brien, Francesco Rovero, Douglas Sheil, Wilson R. Spironello, Nurul Winarni and Sandy J. Andelman.

TEAM's local partners in the study are Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazonia (INPA), Conservation International Suriname, Organization for Tropical Studies, Museo Tridentino di Scienze Naturali, and Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation. The seven protected areas monitored for the study were Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (Uganda), Udzungwa Mountains National Park (Tanzania), Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park (Indonesia), Nam Kading National Protected Area (Laos), Central Suriname Nature Reserve (Suriname), Manaus (Brazil) and Volcan Barva Transect (Costa Rica). 

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