When scientists set up camera traps for North American wildlife, large primates aren't usually their main target. But recently, student biologists at Virginia Tech captured a rare species on film—a very wild, very naked Homo sapiens.
Every couple of weeks, two dozen camera trap stations near Virginia's Mountain Lake Biological Station are checked by the students of Marcella J. Kelly, a professor at Virginia Tech who focuses on carnivore population ecology.
"The student who does the downloading gave the cards to me and said, 'There's some really weird ones on there,'" Kelly told me. "'I think there's some naked people,'" the student added.
According to Kelly, an anonymous man discovered two of their camera stations, proceeded to remove all of his clothes, and ran around on all fours like an animal. Each station captured approximately 20 photos of the man, many of which she deemed too graphic to share on Twitter.
"In areas where people are hiking, we'll usually get photos of them making funny faces or waving or whatever. But it's pretty unusual that someone will take off all of their clothes," she said.
When Kelly tweeted a couple of the photos, several other scientists chimed in to share their own flasher field reports. Take heed, future biologists, apparently this is par for the course.
Most of the stations are located on hiking trails, logging roads, and game trails. Each of the traps set up by Virginia Tech students is between one and two kilometers apart, and utilizes two cameras per station. Since most of them are around knee-height, Kelly said, most human bystanders can only be identified from the waist down (which, depending on your point of view, is either a good or bad thing).
When they're not grimacing at photos of buck-naked humans, members of The Wildlife Society's student chapter are monitoring the distribution of elusive species in Virginia's Appalachian Mountains. Generally, they're hoping to target deer, bears, coyotes, and bobcats. The Lake Biological Station overlaps with Jefferson National Forest, and contains a mix of deciduous forests, mountain streams, successional meadows, ponds, and bogs, making it abundant in research opportunities.
Recently, the group noticed that gray foxes, a species considered widespread throughout parts of North America, had all but disappeared in the region. According to Kelly, the reason for this remains unclear, but it's possible that competition with bobcats or coyotes is affecting their population numbers.
Camera traps have become especially helpful to scientists who study hard-to-spot species. For example, Ecuador's dark tree rat, which was filmed for the first time thanks to a camera station. Technology like motion detectors and infrared triggers provides researchers with unparalleled access and freedom. Not to mention, they're much more convenient than holing up in a blind.
"A lot of these species are really hard to monitor. We've been monitoring them up in these areas since 2004," Kelly said. "They're a great way to monitor the distribution of elusive species, and keep tabs on what changes are happening through time."
As for the Appalachian hominid, he'll get logged in a database along with the rest of the group's findings, Kelly told me.
"I'm still not sure what we'll put in the notes section."
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