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Native Californian, biologist, wildlife conservation consultant, retired Smithsonian scientist, father of two daughters, grandfather of 4 small primates. INTJ. Believes nature is infinitely more interesting than shopping malls. Born 100 years too late.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Animal psychology for camera trappers – Part 3

The late Stanley Young (1889-1969) trapped predators for the Bureau of Biological Survey and documented the demise of Colorado’s loner wolves.

The loners were habitual cattle killers, often trap-maimed and sometimes idiosyncratic animals with monikers like Old Two Toes and Club Foot.

The Custer wolf kept company with coyotes. Killer was coyotecidal, and Whitey had a penchant for bobbing the tails of cattle.

They were notorious at eluding federal trappers and postponing the fateful grip of the Newhouse No. 4 ½ -- a forged steel double long-spring, smooth-jaw trap with drag chain and grapple.

But eventually they erred, and the traps got them.

The longevity and killing rate of individual loners has recently been called into question.

The estimated ages of those loners whose skulls reside in museum collections are too young to account for the lifetime kills attributed to them. It’s more likely that several animals including dogs and wolf-dog hybrids contributed to the record.

But no one can deny the loners’ uncanny ability to detect the trappers’ painstaking efforts at disguise and deception. They could scent danger from minute traces and sidestepped hidden traps.

But if a trapped wolf twisted off part of its foot and escaped it wasn’t an experience it forgot. It was a powerfully painful learning experience, and relevant to discussions about the hurtful effects of camera traps.

So first let's talk about learning associated with pain.

It seems likely that, unlike children, loner wolves got the message after a single close call with fate. This is called single-trial learning

No matter how attractive the bait or lure, trap-wise loners fled trapping sites as soon as human scent was detected.

This type of operant conditioning is known simply as punishment.

Surviving a strychnine-laced bait had the same effect. We have all experienced conditioned food aversion – that long lasting food-specific loathing from food poisoning.

Conditioning can be specific to a given context. A trap-shy wolf might respond to human scent with conditioned avoidance when encountering a hidden trap, but not when encountering a flock of corralled sheep.

If the animal encounters the stimulus in a different context and doesn’t give the conditioned response, it is said to discriminate between situations.

The loners seemed to recognize the danger-laden stimulus of human scent in different contexts, and thus showed stimulus generalization. You can call this survival instinct.

Let’s compare these forms of punishment with the alleged “hurt” caused by camera traps.

Encountering a camera trap for the first time can be a surprising or unexpected experience for an animal. It may also be an alarming experience, but most of the time cameras do not evoke strong fearful responses, and initial vigilance quickly wanes.

Animals habituate to trail cameras because fear is not reinforced with painful stimuli. A repeating electronic flash may be ignored or investigated, but isn’t shunned.

All circumstantial evidence indicates that habituation is the prevailing response of wildlife to cameras left in the woods.

Gipson, P. S., W. B. Ballard, and R. M. Nowak. 1998. Famous North American wolves and the credibility of early wildlife literature. Widllife Society Bulletin, 26(4):808-816.

Young, S.P. 1970. The last of the loners. The MacMillan Company, New York.


cliff said...

I enjoy this subject and different views of animals.

My brothers and I have trapped for years. I quit when it bothered me to see animals in a trap, but my older brother was and is the most talented trapper I have ever known.

Most animals can smell the steel of a new trap and will avoid it or harrass the trapper by walking around it and letting him know that he has been outsmarted. By boiling the trap in hemlock limbs and dipping them in wax you can prevent most animals from the scent and from freezing the pan in cold weather. Knowing we get a lot of rain in our area does change the situation with human scent, but unless the trap is set for otter, which I believe is the most difficult animal to trap, I believe that human scent is not that important.

But animals like coyotes and wolves, I know nothing about wolves but they are in the same category, are very leary and hard to trap, you may get one but after that the animal learns and it is then almost impossible to get in the same type of set.

Great subject,


Unknown said...

I too have some reservations about flashes, but in the lower 48 where roads are rarely more than tens of miles away from anywhere most animals experience the flash of head lights and already are inured to lights. Most startlement probably arises from the novelty of the flash in that spot without the sound of an engine.

I read the linked Slate article and I am amused that the real gripe is that a camera intended for animals might catch a picture of people. There is an underlying assumption in that article that the parks are there solely for human enjoyment in a preconceived "wild" state that doesn't include technology. So if there are no critter cams in the parks does that mean people will have to park their cell phones at the gate? Will they leave their dvd players and TVs at home instead of stocking their RV's with every known gadget to mankind? No more TV flicker in the campgrounds...hey, may be they'll leave the RVs behind!

Woo Hoo!

randomtruth said...

Hey Codger - this great info is shown beautifully in a new episode of Nature on PBS. It's called "The Wolf that Changed Everything" and is about Ernest Seton's experiences trapping the famous cattle killing wolf Lobo in 1893.

After seeing the intelligence and love Lobo had, Seton gave up trapping, became a naturalist, wrote the famous book "Wild Animals I Have Known" and was instrumental in pushing the Feds to establish more American parks. He also founded the boy scouts. Great, great man.

Camera Trap Codger said...

Good to read the comments. I can tell Cliff is a read woodsman.

Gees, Valencia, hope the blog helps your migraines. Nothing like getting into the woods to forget your troubles.

RT -- E.T.Seton -- a real naturalist. His autobiography ("Life of an artist naturalist"?) is hard to find, but it is a very interesting read to get a feel for natural history around the turn of the century. And his wildlife art book is a wonderful thing to see. BTW, his daughter Anya was quite a writer too -- historical fiction with romance, the kind of stuff the redhead likes to read.

I looked up his ranch in NM some years ago, but the cabin is gone, and its now a national boy scout facility. I was disappointed that there were very few memoriabilia of his times.

Thanks, I'll be on the lookout for the PBS piece.

Beverly said...

Awesome! You've done it again...filled me with wonder and pain and then hope for the discoveries you and others bring us. Thanks a whole bunch, kiddo!

Some interesting links:



Unknown said...

love your site-- awesome. My wife does some camera trapping and loves Gods animals-- Keep up the good work