VCU Rice Center

Photo of sunlit trees
News and events
Aug. 5, 2013

Camera trapping underway

We are not alone. In fact, it looks like we're greatly outnumbered.

As a pilot project for a new laboratory exercise in the Department of Biology's Vertebrate Natural History (VNH) course, five camera traps were deployed at the VCU Rice Center this spring to enable researchers and students to determine the numbers of common mammals, including deer, raccoons, opossum and squirrels, present at the center.

Trophy Cam
The camera traps use Bushnell 8MP Trophy Cam HD Max Black LED Trail cameras

A passive infrared motion sensor captures heat and motion to trigger the camera. Most of the time the animal doesn't even know it's been photographed — in the daytime, the only giveaway is a slight click when a camera triggers, while at night there is a LED flash.

Primarily, these traps are a minimally-invasive way to educate VCU students about our wonderful Virginia mammal fauna and about modern animal census tools. Camera traps are now widely used in wildlife and conservation biology. A more measurable benefit is that results from these lab classes will contribute to a growing database on mammal records to enhance our understanding of local (VCU Rice Center) and national (emammal) mammal patterns.

Over time, these cameras will provide long-term data on mammal abundance and habitat use at the Rice Center. These data will be funneled into a larger citizen science project developed by VCU Rice Center collaborator Roland Kays and colleagues called emammal. The data thus will be informative for the Rice Center and also will become part of a large national database.

Broader impact

There are plans to set up a rural vs. urban forest comparison by camera trapping in the James River Park in town as well as at the Rice Center. This has been a successful way to compare urban versus rural wildlife in other urban park systems, such as Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C.


The camera trap lab has been developed in an effort to develop inspiring coursework that can be managed with the recent growth in lab sections and students in the VNH class, using the VCU Rice Center as a bountiful resource.

Emeritus biology professor Dr. John Pagels was one of the originators of the camera trap lab: when he started teaching the VNH lab at VCU more than 30 years ago, there was only one section with 12 students, and labs entailed camping for the weekend in the Virginia mountains. Now there are often more than 12 sections with more than 300 students in VNH each year. Logistically, it would be difficult to maintain the extensive outdoor experience students had years ago. Using camera trap labs, however, does give students some outside experience of setting up camera trap sampling arrays. One of VCU's own alumni — Rachel Komosinski, a biology student with an M.S. — has been instrumental in getting this pilot lab exercise up and running, and is working on developing it further in VNH labs this summer.

The camera trap lab will give us a greater understanding of the abundance of wildlife and will train our researchers to be able to conduct similar studies in their future work.