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Fifty Shades of Prey: Using Thermal Imagers to Survey Animals in the Wild

By: , Posted on: September 1, 2015

Using Thermal Imaging Techniques to Survey and Monitor Animals in the Wild: A Methodology.

One reason we, as authors, had for writing this book is to clear up long standing and fairly pervasive misunderstandings regarding the use of thermal imagers in the field. One common misunderstanding that has persisted is that a snow-covered background is preferred for aerial surveys of mammals.  It was thought that warm-blooded animals would be best detected when contrasted against the snow. However, animals have evolved over eons to conserve heat during cold (i.e. increased fur growth in the winter). Consequently, during winter the temperature contrast between the animal and the background is minimized.

Thermal imagers provide better images when the temperature difference between the animal and its background is greatest. A better time for surveys would be in early spring when the ambient temperature is warmer and before the animal has shed its winter coat. At this point in time the animal will be radiating heat to remain cool rather than conserving heat and the temperature difference between it and the background will be large.

As an interesting aside, during work in the Atchafalaya basin in Louisiana, we were using a thermal imager to locate black bears in partnership with researchers from Louisiana State University. While at LSU we were contacted by the French film crew (Canal+) for the television show “Dans la Nature avec Stephane Peyron” (In the Wild with Stephane Peyron).  The film production crew wanted to include our work with the thermal imager and black bears in their documentary on the people and swamps of Louisiana.  As part of that work, we had to calibrate the thermal imager and used a human as a target. A student was sent into the swamp in the middle of the night, wearing a radio collar, while we flew in a helicopter to see if we could locate him. We had no trouble finding the student and, in fact, could even tell from the thermal image the style of underwear he was wearing. The eerie part, however, was that we observed he was not the only person out in the swamp in the middle of the night…

The accompanying video gives examples of using thermal imagers in observation of animals. Some images are from early equipment as well as more recent drone-mounted imagers.

Thermal Imaging Techniques to Survey and Monitor Animals in the Wild: A Methodology publishes in October 2015 and is available to purchase from the Elsevier Store.

thermal imaging techniques

Use discount code “STC215” at the checkout to for a 25% discount.

About the Author: Kirk J Havens

kirk havensKirk Havens was born in Vienna, Virginia and received his B.S. in Biology (1981) and M.S. in Oceanography (1987) from Old Dominion University and a Ph.D. in Environmental Science and Public Policy (1996) from George Mason University. He is a Research Associate Professor, Director of the Coastal Watersheds Program, and Asst. Director of the Center for Coastal Resources Management at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. He also serves as a collaborating partner in the College of William & Mary School of Law Virginia Coastal Policy Clinic.

His research has spanned topics as diverse as hormonal activity in blue crabs to tracking black bears and panthers using helicopters and thermal imaging equipment. His present work involves coastal wetlands ecology, microplastics, marine debris, derelict fishing gear, and adaptive management processes.

He hosts the VIMS event “A Healthy Bay for Healthy Kids: Cooking with the First Lady” and the public service program “Chesapeake Bay Watch with Dr. Kirk Havens”. He is Chair of the Chesapeake Bay Partnership’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee. He was originally appointed to STAC by Gov. Warner and was re-appointed by Gov. Kaine, Gov. McDonnell, and Gov. McAuliffe. He was also appointed by North Carolina Gov. Perdue to serve on the Executive Policy Board for the North Carolina Albemarle Pamlico National Estuary Partnership and is presently vice-chair. He serves on the Board of Directors and is past Board Chair of the nonprofit American Canoe Association, the Nation’s largest and oldest (est. 1880) organization dedicated to paddlesports with 40,000 members in every state and 38 countries.

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