54 Herpetological Review 37(1), 2006
Acknowledgments.—We thank T. Madsen for demonstrating his sys-
tem for marking ventral and lateral scales on snakes. We thank X. Glaudas
and C. A. Young for capturing and processing some of the snakes. The
procedures used in this study were approved by the University of Geor-
gia animal care and use committee (A2003-10024) and the South Caro-
lina Department of Natural Resources (Collection permits: 56-2003, 07-
2004). Research was supported by the U.S. Department of the Interior
(Fish and Wildlife Service, Division of Scientific Authority), and manu-
script preparation was aided by the Environmental Remediation Sciences
Division of the Office of Biological and Environmental Research, U.S.
Department of Energy through Financial Assistance Award no. DE-FC09-
96SR18546 to the University of Georgia Research Foundation.
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© 2006 by Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles
An Inexpensive Video Surveillance Technique for
KYLIE A. ROBERT
School of Biological Sciences and Institute of Wildlife Research
Heydon-Laurence Building (A08), The University of Sydney
NSW 2006, Australia
Most wildlife behavioral studies require time consuming direct
observations of animals (Altmann 1974) or the use of expensive
closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras and time-lapse video
equipment (Wratten 1994). Direct observation of animals is lim-
ited by how practical observations are of the species and how eas-
ily the species is habituated to an observer (Stewart et al. 1997).
The use of video applications in wildlife research has been well
documented as a useful technique (Pulliainen 1971; Stewart et al.
1997; Sykes et al. 1995; Wratten 1994) and video surveillance
equipment has been used increasingly in studies (Hughes and
Shorrock 1998; Jury et al. 2001; McQuillen and Brewer 2000;
Roberts and Anderson 2002; Shivik and Gruver 2002; Stevens
2002). However, the technique has not been exploited to its full
potential by biologists, due primarily to the high initial cost and
length of time to extract data from cassettes (Stewart et al. 1997;
Sykes et al. 1995). Time-lapse video is widely used by develop-
mental biologists (Kulesa and Fraser 1998; Peppo et al. 2001;
Rezaie et al. 2002) but has enormous scope in applications for
wildlife research and until recently has been cost prohibitive. The
advantages of a video surveillance system include gaining a per-
manent record of events that can be replayed as many times as
necessary to retrieve data, reduction in observer bias and missed
observations, easy habituation by the study animal and the ability
to document events that are not easily detected using direct obser-
vations. Video surveillance can be used to record activity at a fo-
cal site (such as entrance or exit to a shelter site or burrow, the
removal of baits by target and non-target species), identify indi-
viduals, document predation events, and detect nocturnal, crepus-
cular or elusive species (Brown 1997; Deufel and Cundall 1999;
Stewart et al. 1997; Tobler and Schwierin 1996).
Equipment and set-up.—I used inexpensive miniature mono-
chrome (MINI-M20A) video surveillance cameras attached to an
existing PC computer via a 4 channel PC digital surveillance re-
cording system (Go Video DVR4, PCI PC capture card and soft-
ware) available from Allthings Sales and Service (Kelmscott, West-
ern Australia; www.allthings.com.au). Allthings Sales and Service
economically and reliably ship worldwide via airmail or EMS
speed post, with typical airmail rates to the USA for a 0.5–2kg
package ranging from $US 8 to $27 depending on weight. The
entire system can be purchased as a complete package and attached
to an existing IBM compatible computer from as little as $US
210; the system (discussed below) consists of a 4 channel PCI PC
capture card, software, 4 monochrome cameras, and a Plug-in DIY
AV 20 meter cable/adaptor set for 4 cameras. Several optional color
camera upgrades are also available from $US 60 to $140. Alterna-
tively, each component can be purchased separately and a system
FIG. 1. Snapshot image of experimental enclosure showing camera iden-
tification, date and time display.
Herpetological Review 37(1), 2006 55
built to suit individual or experimental needs. By comparison,
quotations supplied by closed circuit television and surveillance
system specialists for the identical system ranged from $US 1,782
Equipment details.—Go Video-DVR4 consists of a PCI PC cap-
ture card and Grand Guard Anywhere software (Grandtec, Tai-
wan) that allows connection of up to four video cameras (capture
cards are also available for up to 16 cameras) to display/record
simultaneously on a IBM compatible PC computer. The surveil-
lance system is motion sensitive, with adjustable detection sensi-
tivity for each channel (if continuous recording is required motion
detect sensitivity is set at 100%). Areas not to be observed or dis-
regarded for motion detect can be defined by masking an area
onscreen and audible warnings can be set for each channel to no-
tify of movement. Each video input can be adjusted for bright-
ness, contrast, saturation, hue, image quality and configured to
record camera identification, date and time. The system allows
high resolution recording [384 lines (H) × 288 lines (V) resolution
or 110,592 pixels per camera] in comparison to conventional 4
channel quad/VCR recording system [VHS VCR: 160 lines (H) ¥
288 lines (V) resolution or 46,080 pixels per camera; SUPER-
VHS VCR: 265 lines (H) × 288 lines (V) resolution or 76,320
pixels per camera]. Video capture rate is 3–5 frames/sec and is
dependent upon computer hardware, number of channels in use,
and image size. The frame rate can be increased when being re-
played to speed up data gathering. Video is captured as AVI files
that can be compressed and saved on the computer hard drive for
later analysis. A snap shot option captures still images that can be
saved as BMP or JPEG images (Fig 1). The system requires a
Pentium 200 microprocessor or faster (Pentium 500 or above rec-
ommended by manufacturer), PCI 2.1 compliant mother board, at
least 64 MB RAM, Microsoft windows 95 or 98 operating system
(capture cards are also available for other Windows operating sys-
tems, e.g., ME/2000/XP), one PCI slot, and at least 1GB hard disk
space per camera.
MINI-M20A cameras are 1/4-inch low smear image sensor
monochrome infra red sensitive surveillance cameras with wall or
ceiling mount. They come complete with a 3.6 mm lens but you
can choose the lens that best suits your application.
Plug-in DIY AV 20 m cable/adaptor set includes 20 m of audio-
visual cable with all the appropriate molded plugs and sockets
required for self-installation.
FIG. 2. On screen view of one camera (1–4 cameras can be viewed simultaneously) with set-up menu for motion detect.
56 Herpetological Review 37(1), 2006
I tested the video set-up using three separate temperature con-
trolled rooms with cameras mounted to the ceiling ca. 1.3 m above
experimental enclosures. I placed medium-sized scincid lizards
(Eulamprus tympanum, 130–150 mm total length) in 1 m diam-
eter enclosures and recorded the lizards’ behavior from 0900 to
1700 h on 95% motion detect (Fig. 2). To test the suitability of the
set-up for my purposes, I chose to record position of lizards at 5
minute intervals and estimate activity rate by dividing the enclo-
sures in half with a piece of string and recording the number of
times the lizard crossed this line (Fig. 2). The clarity of the picture
was more than sufficient for the purpose of this experiment. Each
AVI file was compressed (zipped) and saved on compact disc for
storage and later analysis. The software included with the surveil-
lance package (Presto! Video Works, Newsoft®) was used for video
replay and data collection. During replays, the video frame rate
was adjusted to 10 frames per second to speed up the scoring pro-
Discussion.—The use of miniature cameras and video surveil-
lance software has wide applications for wildlife and behavioural
research. Previously, the major disadvantage with this technology
has been the initial set-up cost and the time required to playback
video tapes for data collection. New technologies have developed
inexpensive cameras and computer software equipped with mo-
tion detect sensing to eliminate periods of no activity that in turn
speed up data retrieval upon playback. A compact disc burner is
recommended to burn all compacted (zipped) AVI files for stor-
age and later data analysis to reduce storage requirements on the
hard drive and to ensure a safe back-up should a different analysis
or further analysis be required.
The entire set-up could be modified or components upgraded to
collect field data by running on a computer in weather proof hous-
ing or a laptop computer with a USB video capture box using a
portable power source (generator, batteries, or solar power). Cam-
eras can be placed in weatherproof housings or upgraded to out-
door surveillance cameras. There is also the option of wireless
cameras and receivers.
A video surveillance technique for wildlife has not been ex-
ploited to its full potential in behavioural and ecological studies
despite a history of documented use in such studies (Sykes et al.
1995; Wratten 1994). Rapid improvements in low cost equipment
have made the technology readily accessible to biologists, and may
result in more widespread application of the technique.
Acknowledgments.—I thank Kevin Forknall from Allthings Sales and
Service for technical advice and R.N. Reed for providing useful comment
on the manuscript. Lizards were collected under scientific licence from
the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service (B2082) and
research was approved by The University of Sydney Animal Care and
Ethics Committee (L04/11-99/3/3042). The project was supported in part
by an Ethel Mary Read Research Grant from the Zoological Society of
New South Wales and a Joyce W. Vickery Scientific Research Grant from
the Linnean Society of NSW to K.A. Robert.
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