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Taking a Peak with 'Animals with Cameras'
January 31, 2018  | By David Hinckley  | 1 comment

Next time you go out for a pizza with a waddle of penguins, you should know they will probably order anchovies.

That public service message comes directly from Animals With Cameras, a fascinating new miniseries that starts Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET (check local listings) on PBS’s Nature.

Veteran wildlife cameraman Gordon Buchanan leads a team that, as the title would suggest, straps cameras to accommodating animals, who then capture video of their lives in places that humans can’t go.

In the first episode, this most notably includes the elaborate tunnels of meerkats (top and at left, with Buchanan), small burrowing African mammals.

A family of meerkats can dig hundreds of feet of interconnected tunnels, some up to four feet under the ground, with multiple entrances.

For obvious reasons, humans have never explored these tunnels. So Buchanan’s team designs a camera that weighs less than 5% of a meerkat’s body weight – which isn’t all that hefty to begin with – and lets a couple of meerkats show us what’s happening down there.

The Nature team’s specific interest lies in seeing meerkat pups, since the animals don’t emerge above ground until they’re three weeks old and have a decent chance of fending for themselves. So we have never seen newborn meerkats in the wild. Until now.

The pictures can be a little haphazard, since the meerkat camera operators haven’t quite gotten the hang of framing yet. But then, that’s not entirely their fault, since they’re operating in pitch blackness. Happily, stealth light technology enables us humans to get a much better view of what they aren’t seeing.

The first episode also takes us to the jungle of Cameroon, where a 4-year-old orphaned chimpanzee (right) is learning the skills to join her fellow chimps in the wild.

She’s not crazy about the camera strapped around her waist, and she dismantles the first one. But she carts the second one up into the treetops, which is valuable because her human trainer and the Nature team can now see whether, for instance, she knows what fruits and other foods to eat.

The camera serves as a critical tool in assessing her readiness to live a full-on chimpanzee life.

The cameras perform a somewhat different food function when gently strapped on the back of Magellanic penguins (below) in Patagonia.

Last year, sadly, there was a 60% mortality rate among penguin chicks, which likely means the adults were unable to find enough of the right foods to nurture them through those early hungry months.

The cameras follow the adults as they head out into the Atlantic to find that food. Those journeys can take up to three days and cover 200 miles, so you can see why humans haven’t ever tagged along for the ride.

What’s recorded on the cameras startles the penguin study team. It shows the penguins swimming right past shrimp and krill and other perfectly good seafood until they find a huge swarm of anchovies. That’s when they started gulping down everything in sight.

It turns out, the show notes, that anchovies are “a penguin superfood.” They’re exceptionally rich in oil and other ingredients that help penguin chicks grow big and strong, so adult penguins just keep swimming until they find them.

There are definitely moments of cute in this three-part series, which goes on to "camera-ize" devil rays, seals, cheetahs (right), brown bears and baboons, among others.

But most of the goals are more scientific, revolving around how these animals’ behavior affects their own lives and their relationship with human lives. In the end, obviously, the goal is to find ways of living that accommodate both man and beast, which can broadly be described as the mission of the whole Nature series.

Because the camera must be retrieved at the end of the exercise, and for other reasons, there are limits on which animals can be outfitted with a camera. Good luck with jellyfish. But the possibilities still seem vast. What if, for instance, it turns out that Adélie penguins prefer pepperoni.

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Wow! This sounds so cool. What fun it would be to be part of the team that decides which animals will be able to wear the camera. To expand on this wouldn't it be great to have disposable cameras that could relay all the footage back to the team and that automatically become unstrapped after x amount of hours/days. That way they could strap it to that jellyfish.
Feb 2, 2018   |  Reply
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