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Florida Black Bears And Roadways: A Closer Look


National Geographic’s Crittercam is a research tool designed to be worn by wild animals. It records video for a unique look from the wearer’s perspective. This technology has gathered film from the viewpoints of different wildlife species all across the globe. Now it’s a Florida black bear’s turn. 

Biologist Joe Guthrie instructs the setting of a trap in a forested area just outside Venus, Florida. He and some colleagues are working on an ongoing University of Kentucky black bear research project. Guthrie is also a member of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition. Last year expedition members took a trek up the middle of the state to draw attention for the need to keep Florida’s remaining wild areas intact and protected. The expedition and Guthrie’s research began to reveal how difficult it is for bears to travel the state to find food, habitat and mates. The highways that have been built to ease drivers' commutes, are a major hindrance for wildlife. And development is ever encroaching.

Those working together on the black bear project and the expedition are about to get a closer look, from a bear’s viewpoint. They have joined forces with Crittercam inventor, Greg Marshall. Marshall says the technology will provide an intimate view into how a bear interacts with its environment, including how it deals with obstacles like roadways.

"In a habitat like this, inevitably they are going to encounter roads, I mean we have made in-roads into this incredible habitat," says Marshall.

So does a bear come to the highway, look out at the moving metallic masses and decide to head back into the brush? Does it ever find a way to cross? Attaching a video camera to a bear could help answer questions like these, and possibly help make a case for wildlife overpasses. Marshall says mating and foraging behaviors are also likely to be recorded, providing researchers with a broader understanding to apply in Florida black bear protection efforts.

"In a habitat like this, inevitably they are going to encounter roads, I mean we have made in-roads into this incredible habitat," says Marshall.

Guthrie checks the trap he and colleagues set earlier. There is no bear yet, but he notices some good signs.

"This place is loaded up with bear tracks," he says. "They’re everywhere; in all different directions."

Human presence is likely keeping the bear at a distance. Once we leave, the hope is, it will come out to examine the baited trap. Then, if the bear gets curious enough, researchers will have a candidate to wear Crittercam. 

A little while later we return. There’s a bear in the trap.

We step quietly up to the trap. Guthrie opens a mail-slot sized flap to get a look at the bear. It lifts its large, wet nose to the opening and sniffs at us, nostrils flaring.

Once the bear is sedated, researchers gather some basic measurements and health data. The Crittercam is attached to a GPS collar, which is fitted around the bear’s neck.

The team packs up and moves back, giving the bear time and space to wake up.

Crittercam inventor, Greg Marshall, says now the bear will reveal more natural behaviors than it would with a camera crew nearby.

"I am, of course, biased, but the great thing about the Crittercam system is it gives us a real perspective on what these animals do when they’re out in the woods and we can’t be there watching them. When we’re there, we’re affecting their behavior," he says.

After a couple of days, the Crittercam will be remotely deactivated and drop off the bear at a certain GPS point. There the team will retrieve the camera. And, hopefully, have footage to solve some black bear mysteries.

Follow @MichelleZWalker on Twitter.