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Volume 39 Issue 7 • June 18-24, 2009
now in our 39th season

Moving Pictures

by Dr. Sarah D. Oktay
Managing Director UMass Boston Nantucket Field Station

In keeping with the island's hosting of the 14th annual Nantucket Film Festival, I thought I would write about the use of videotaping and cameras in scientific surveys on-island and in various scenarios applicable to Nantucket flora and fauna.  Although most imaging research is not narrated using the words of a talented screenwriter, often the videos themselves tell a compelling story.  There are many different applications and advantages of using a remote camera for videotaping a biological specimen or habitat, not the least of which is the fact that it takes the human being with his associated smells, sounds, and “tells” out of the equation.  As any student of behavioral theory can tell you, subjects act differently when they know they are being filmed.  A change in behavior or selective avoidance of a human being holding a camera is magnified when the subject is a wild animal or an uncomfortable guest at a wedding party.  When scientists want to view normal behavior or see animals in remote, fragile, or dangerous environs, they turn  to photography and videography. These machines can go where we cannot, they don't blink, and can preserve for posterity a moment that may or may not occur again.

My first introduction to large scale video behavior studies was from hearing amusing stories from my college friends who spent many a late night earning a paycheck at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston watching hours and hours of cuttlefish video.  Cuttlefish and squid are studied by neurologists because they possess a huge nerve cell (specifically, a supersized axon), that demonstrates in a large scale how nerve impulses are initiated and transmitted.  These creatures are also amazingly smart and very adept at escaping their tanks in the middle of the night.  Back in the day, they paid students to review hours of video footage to document unusual behaviors, the sharing of space, and other social interactions of the creatures in the tanks. You can see what it is like to view them yourself at These videos are certain to cure you of  insomnia unless you have a latent fear of Jules Verne movies.

Here at the Nantucket Field Station, we have two web cameras that are set to record a variety of pre-programmed areas including the osprey nest, the front beach (The Eider Cam project; info at and the harbor, among others.  The cameras can also be controlled  from anyone, anywhere, with an internet connection and are accessed at  By recording these areas on a daily basis, we can keep track of things as varied as sea duck mortality on a snowy winter day to behavioral changes and feeding times for the osprey.  You may have also heard about the Nantucket New School – UMass Boston project called “Windows Around the World,” which is used as a teaching tool and to record climatological and botanical data (for more info, visit

WAP - Photo by Tom Little

Scientist and summer resident Tom Little, along with colleagues from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Boston University, has received funding to develop a wireless video streaming network for acquiring environmental and ecological data with help from the Nantucket Field Station.  Dr. Little uses cameras that stream a series of video to a wireless access point (WAP) that looks a little like a Martian land rover.  Completely hand-made, the WAP receives a signal from a nearby wireless access point at the field station and then collects data from a series of cameras that can be set almost anywhere that isn't inundated with seawater.  These systems are being developed to work using negligible power and at a low cost suitable for deployment in remote coastal sensing applications. The design is based on the premise that if a complete video sensor unit can be constructed for less then $50, then it is possible to deploy a very large number of units providing large area coverage. The cameras are housed in military-grade hard plastic shells and are operated by bouncing wireless signals from known access points to the node (or mother ship that talks to all the remote cameras).  The node is powered by solar cells, the cameras are powered by batteries.  In the absence of a line of sight transmission of an internet signal; data can be recorded and then downloaded weekly by hand.  Infrared (heat signature); UV or motion detecting sensors can be hooked up to the cameras. Home and business security companies have developed several cutting-edge techniques that have proven to be extremely useful for the average scientist looking for a stealthy fox or rarely seen jaguar.

These cameras work best with a known and useful focal point, and that is where planning and forethought comes into play. A camera looking at nothing except some marsh grass and an occasional stray heron will not prove useful. The best scenario is to find a place where animals are entering and exiting a feeding area or their home; similar to placing a video camera to watch people enter and exit a building. One of the best uses of the camera so far is to record bats exiting a bat roost. We are investigating recording turtle mobility, fiddler crab site fidelity, egret and heron nesting and feeding behaviors, gray seal behavior, sea gull/human interactions, and any other topics we can dream up.

Cameras are especially useful for recording animals that are primarily nocturnal or active at night. Animal Planet has a new series called “Night” (  that uses night imaging cameras and infrared cameras with motion detectors to record what previously would be lost to the average film crew. Imaging equipment primarily used by the military is also helping biologists track animals that normally travel and hunt at night from crocodiles to lions.

In oceanography, a video camera attached to a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) can coast along the bottom and record shipwrecks (like the famous Titanic videos) or benthic (bottom dwelling) creatures usually hidden from prying human eyes.  They can “fly” into 400 degree Celsius plumes of white and black smoke laced with acids, metals, and minerals spewing from hydrothermal vents over a mile below the ocean surface to record marvelously brilliant tube worms living in a hellscape. ROV's are  submarine “robots” tethered by a cable to a research ship while their cousins, the autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) are controlled by computer and using “free swimming” (both are unmanned). Although ROV's carry no crew, the video cameras and sensors they transport allow scientists to observe and record the appearance and behavior of sea life at greater depths.  Mechanical arms attached to an ROV can be used to collect samples.  New technology is using computers to sort through hours of video to quantify creatures as small as phytoplankton using pixel recognition software. Videos capture what can often be undetected within the normal time frame of human vision, whether it is the beat of a hummingbird's wings or the snapping closure of a Venus fly trap.

School for Marine Science and Technology (SMAST - UMass Dartmouth) professor, Dr. Kevin Stokesbury, records sea scallop density and movement using a underwater camera specially designed to collect video surveys. One advantage to using optical imaging techniques to record ground fish and shellfish abundance is that it is a nondestructive technology, no scallops need to die and no dredges must be deployed and typically they can be more accurate. Some of the video data collected for marine surveys is combined with acoustic data and several types of tracking devices as part of the Census of Marine Life ( which is a global network of researchers in more than 80 nations engaged in a 10-year scientific initiative to assess and explain the diversity, distribution, and abundance of life in the oceans. The world's first comprehensive Census of Marine Life - past, present, and future - will be released in 2010.

That's enough jawboning about the many ways that videos can help us learn about our environment and fellow creatures. Time to get out and enjoy everything the Nantucket Film Festival has to offer. I would be remiss if I did not mention the must see documentary, The Cove, playing on Saturday, June 20, at 2:30 p.m. at the Starlight Theater and Sunday, the 21st at Bennett Hall at 12:30 p.m. It helps to explain why many of my colleagues consider sea life parks to be ethically challenging although one can appreciate the educational opportunity they provide.

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