Conservation photography as more than just a hobby: Part 1

By Guest Bloggers Jerod and Bethann Merkle

An Introduction to our Guest Bloggers:

Jerod is a wildlife research biologist who hails from Arizona and Montana and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at Université Laval (Québec, Canada).  His wife, Bethann, is a communications consultant, author, artist, and educator who hails from Montana.  They became interested in writing for our blog, as they were “intrigued by the premise of the Early Career Ecologists blog because we are both under 30 years of age, work actively in ecology and scientific communication, and often discuss how important it is to communicate about this work across disciplines and beyond academia.”  Jerod and Bethann enjoy collaborating on personal and professional projects, including this article about one aspect of Jerod’s current research project.

Conservation Photography

Facial recognition in humans is important for identifying and monitoring criminal behavior.  For ecological conservation, identifying individuals is important for estimating and monitoring ecological parameters such as survival, reproduction, and habitat selection.  Ultimately, recognizing individual humans and wild animals offers social and conservation benefits.

Why, then, do ecologists live in the dark ages when it comes to identifying individual animals for research and conservation purposes?  The answer is straightforward, yet somewhat complicated.

First, conducting the field work necessary to identify animals can be fairly challenging.  GPS and radio tracking have their limitations, and not everyone can follow their subjects around with the complete dedication of Jane Goodall.

That’s where photography can bridge the gap.  Of course, taking photos of animals is not always as easy as putting up a security camera in a bank.  Animals can be elusive and cryptic, and even after they are located, they tend not to show you the side that you want.

Finally, technology for dealing with these problems has only recently become more affordable and widely available to ecologists.  Today, though, you can freely download image manipulation software that helps turn twisted images, bring out 3 dimensional patterns, clarify blurry edges, and easily take measurements of morphological features of animals.  Examples include ImageJ, R, and GIMP.

Now that such software is available, the use of photographs for ecological conservation is increasing.  In fact, researchers are even using photos from non-researchers (e.g., wildlife photographers) to monitor population dynamics of certain species.  This could revolutionize data collecting – when using photography, we are generally not harassing the animals, nor are we wasting money on expensive capture events.

But with this new ability comes a whole plethora of issues to resolve.  Any ecologist can attest to this!  Find something new that is cool, and a whole new bag of questions falls into your lap.  The most important issue would be the management of huge databases of photographs and the tedious task of finding which photos match together.  Furthermore, what are the error rates?  Can we incorporate them when estimating ecological parameters?  How do we know when we are right and wrong?

In part II of this article, we will present a case study highlighting some of the opportunities and challenges involved with addressing these questions.


Jerod is a Ph.D. student in the Département de Biologie et Centre d’Étude de la Forêt at Université Laval.   This research is supported by Université Laval, Parks Canada, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and Canadian Foundation for Innovation.  For more information about Jerod and his research, visit

Bethann is a freelance communications consultant, author, artist, and educator who specializes in ecology, food systems, and nonprofit topics.  For more information about Bethann, visit

All photo credits: Jerod A. Merkle, Université Laval


5 thoughts on “Conservation photography as more than just a hobby: Part 1

  1. Pingback: Conservation photos, part I: Carpet Pythons | Geoff's Research

  2. I was wondering if there is anybody here who could point out some good resources for a soon-to-be-graduate-student who is looking to find ways to use photography and other noninvasive sampling techniques in his fieldwork? I’m keenly interested in finding ways to reduce the disruptiveness of ecological and conservation research to the species and systems being studied, and I’ve given some thought to ways in which photography could be used in fieldwork, but I don’t really have a good sense of what the current state of practice is and what some of the more innovative techniques that people are trying might be. If anyone reading this has some ideas about where I might look, I’m all ears.

  3. Hi Gabe,
    Are you looking to monitor individuals to estimate survival and population size, or assess animal-habitat relationships? The literature is quite different between the two. For example, there is lots of literature on estimating indices of population density as a function of habitat variables using trail cameras. Let me know and maybe I can point you in the right direction.

  4. Pingback: Conservation photography as more than just a hobby: Part 2 | Early Career Ecologists

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