Wildlife, get ready for your close-up.

Biologists are proposing a vast network of interconnected remote cameras that could revolutionize the study of bears, moose, caribou, cougars and other large animals across North America.

"If everybody collected similar information and sent it to a central repository, it would enable us to not only monitor changes in global biodiversity, but also understand why," said Jesse Whittington, a Banff-based Parks Canada biologist and one of three co-authors of a paper promoting the idea.

Whittington said use of remote, motion-triggered cameras to study wildlife has grown as scientists warm to the non-invasive, relatively inexpensive and highly informative technique.

He and his colleagues estimate the use of wildlife cameras is nearly doubling every three years. Their paper estimates tens of thousands are already in use in nearly every region of the world.

The power of pooling data

Imagine if the data and images they collect were standardized and collated so that results from one study could be compared or combined with those of another, thought Whittington. The result could resemble the global network of weather reporting stations currently used for everything from weather prediction to climate modelling.

"Wouldn't it be great if there was a common system that we could put our remote camera data in? These cameras would be like weather sensors."

Combining cameras into one vast network would open up a whole new range of productive research possibilities, he suggested.

More cameras would strengthen statistical inferences. It would also allow scientists to study the effect of gradual changes across a large landscape — say, in elevation or habitat quality or amount of human impact.

"By pooling data across large areas, it gives you much more power to see how wildlife populations are changing, how their distributions are shifting and a better understanding of why they're changing," said Whittington.

"Having these cameras in place would be a great tool. Their power is looking at big scale changes."

It wouldn't take much, he argued.

Biologists already use the cameras in similar ways, so it shouldn't be too hard to set up a standard protocol everyone would follow. And a camera that can run all year without supervision sells for about $600.

Room for 'citizen scientists'

Ultimately, Whittington suggested, the database could accept information from "citizen scientists" much like the weather stations do.

The big item would be getting a government agency, a university or some combination thereof to hold all the data.

Such networks are already starting to take shape.

Parks Canada is pooling camera images from its Rocky Mountain parks. In the United States, the Smithsonian Institution has eMammal, an online program in which professional and citizen scientists use standard software to collect, store and share camera data.

Agencies and universities in British Columbia, Alberta and the northwestern U.S. are all moving in that direction, Whittington said.

"Increasingly, we're seeing the larger agencies and universities developing standard protocols for people that are collecting remote camera data. I see this regional collaboration ... lead(ing) to more national and international collaborations."

It's an opportunity to make better use of data being collected anyway, he said.

"We don't exactly have a clear path forward, but I think we're on the way."