Spying on seabirds: a review of time-lapse photography capabilities and limitations

Caitlin E. Black

Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, New Radcliffe House, Woodstock Rd. OX2 6GG, Oxford, UK.

Full paper


Remote monitoring of wildlife has a long history in ecological research but recent advances in technology have extended the possibilities of remote sensing methods, making camera systems more easily accessible, of higher resolution, and more relevant to a greater range of research interests. Time-lapse photography is most applicable to study animals frequently present at a photographed location or to study frequently repeated behaviours. Therefore, time-lapse photography methods are particularly relevant to study colonial animals at fixed locations. Here, I review literature using time-lapse photography methods in the context of their application to seabirds, focusing on distinct research aims. Cameras can be used to observe seabird behaviour in places or during times when human observation would be nearly impossible, including in remote locations, at night using infrared, and during harsh weather conditions. However, cameras are prone to mechanical failures and programming errors and need regular maintenance, depending on the frequency of photographs. Although many studies have used time-lapse photography techniques to understand seabird ecology, researchers can expand their study aims by examining how research on other taxa has used camera traps. In addition, as efficiency increases, demands for camera systems also increase; therefore, it is necessary to standardise data collection across sites and species to improve comparability across studies. Overall, for the study of colonial wildlife, time-lapse photography proves to be a cost-effective, relatively non-invasive method, which can help researchers save time during fieldwork when this is often limited.


Recent technological advances in the remote monitoring of wildlife have extended the possibilities of remote sensing methods, making camera systems both easily accessible and relevant to a greater range of research interests (Swann et al. 2011). Traditionally, cameras have focused on photographing one individual, identified by distinct markings, by either taking motion-triggered photographs or using handheld devices to study an animal opportunistically (Cutler & Swann 1999). However, in cases where wildlife can be photographed in groups, alternative methods may prove more effective in terms of data output, time in the field, and expense. In particular, time-lapse photography, defined here as a camera system installed at a field site and programmed to take an image at a set frequency, has recently become more accessible to researchers and has great capabilities for the study of animals living in groups. To demonstrate these abilities and highlight possible limitations of time-lapse techniques, I review past uses of camera systems and how they may be applied, or have been applied, to the study of colonial wildlife with a focus on seabirds.


I would like to thank Quark Expeditions for financial support during the preparation of this manuscript. I would also like to thank Drs Tom Hart, Michelle Taylor, Anni Djurhuus, and anonymous reviewers for editing earlier drafts, which greatly improved the manuscript content.


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