Spot on: using camera traps to individually monitor one of the world’s largest lizards

Date: 18, May, 2020
Author(s):   Moore, H.A., Champney, J.L., Dunlop, J.A., Valentine, L.E., Nimmo, D.G.
Publisher: Wildlife Research

Context: Estimating animal abundance often relies on being able to identify individuals; however, this can be challenging, especially when applied to large animals that are difficult to trap and handle. Camera traps have provided a non-invasive alternative by using natural markings to individually identify animals within image data. Although camera traps have been used to individually identify mammals, they are yet to be widely applied to other taxa, such as reptiles.

Aims: We assessed the capacity of camera traps to provide images that allow for individual identification of the world’s fourth-largest lizard species, the perentie (Varanus giganteus), and demonstrate other basic morphological and behavioural data that can be gleaned from camera-trap images.

Methods: Vertically orientated cameras were deployed at 115 sites across a 10 000 km2 area in north-western Australia for an average of 216 days. We used spot patterning located on the dorsal surface of perenties to identify individuals from camera-trap imagery, with the assistance of freely available spot ID software. We also measured snout-to-vent length (SVL) by using image-analysis software, and collected image time-stamp data to analyse temporal activity patterns.

Results: Ninety-two individuals were identified, and individuals were recorded moving distances of up to 1975 m. Confidence in identification accuracy was generally high (91%), and estimated SVL measurements varied by an average of 6.7% (min = 1.8%, max = 21.3%) of individual SVL averages. Larger perenties (SVL of >45 cm) were detected mostly between dawn and noon, and in the late afternoon and early evening, whereas small perenties (SVL of <30 cm) were rarely recorded in the evening.

Conclusions: Camera traps can be used to individually identify large reptiles with unique markings, and can also provide data on movement, morphology and temporal activity. Accounting for uneven substrates under cameras could improve the accuracy of morphological estimates. Given that camera traps struggle to detect small, nocturnal reptiles, further research is required to examine whether cameras miss smaller individuals in the late afternoon and evening.

Implications: Camera traps are increasingly being used to monitor reptile species. The ability to individually identify animals provides another tool for herpetological research worldwide.