How to Put a Camera on a 1,000-Pound Bison

Ever wondered what a bison’s beard tastes like? Marine biologist and filmmaker Greg Marshall was lucky—or not so lucky—enough to find out recently.

Marshall got a mouthful of the thick, coarse hair while downwind of a fellow researcher who was trimming the beards of two American bison at the Nature Conservancy’s Dunn Ranch Prairie in Missouri on October 15. Marshall, inventor of National Geographic’s Crittercam, was there to aid researchers in mounting the camera-toting collars on a bison’s neck—the first time such a feat has been attempted.

American bison on the Maxwell Game Preserve in Canton, Kansas.
Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic

Crittercams are 1-pound (0.4-kilogram) cameras that are safely attached to wild animals to give researchers a glimpse into how the animals behave in natural settings. The cameras have been attached to more than 70 marine and land species.

When the Nature Conservancy’s Todd Sampsell finished trimming the 8-inch (20-centimeter) beards, he held up a tuft of hair and jokingly proclaimed, “I am the first man to trim the beard of a bison.” (See more bison pictures.)

Marshall retorted, “Well, then, I am the first man to taste the beard of a bison!”

Biological Bulldozers

The Crittercam project will examine specifically what types of plants these prairie behemoths eat, explained project leader Stephen Blake of Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Missouri in St. Louis, and the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology. (Watch more Crittercam videos.)

“It’s difficult to observe what bison are eating … Hopefully, we can build up a picture of what’s in front of them, what they’re eating, and how that changes across the landscape,” said Blake, a National Geographic explorer who maintains animal-movement data on the website Movebank.

Photo of bison bulls in a field wearing crittercam collars.
Bison wearing their newly installed Crittercam collars. Photograph by Stephen Blake, Max Planck Institute for Ornithology

“They’ve been demonstrated to have pretty big impacts on prairie ecosystems because they graze and trample and redistribute nutrients in their poo. They’re classical biological bulldozers. But the subtleties of that are largely not known.”

Herds of up to 30 million American bison once roamed the Great Plains, but settlers killed most of them during the 19th century. Today there are about 500,000 bison in North America, most of which live on private ranches. (See photos of plains around the world.)

The team chose to mount Crittercams on two animals during the ranch’s annual roundup, which allows veterinarians to screen the animals for any health issues.

They chose bison that were already equipped with and used to wearing a GPS collar. Five of the ranch’s 56 bison wear GPS collars so that the researchers can track how they use prairie land.

Cutting Down to Size

The idea to cut the beards came about the night before, when Marshall and a team of researchers from Washington University in St. Louis and the Nature Conservancy were brainstorming ways to mount the cameras on the 1,000-pound (450-kilogram) beasts.

“This was just a pilot program,” Marshall said. “The goal is to see if this works at all with a very, very powerful animal with lots of hair. We had to find a way to make sure we’d be able to see something.”

Before deciding to trim the animals’ beards, the team considered placing the Crittercam on the top or the side of the collar. (Watch a video of bison headbutting.)

But “gravity is a reality. The physics of it all comes back,” said Marshall. The best option was to hang the Crittercam from the bottom of the neck. From that vantage point, the camera will record ten hours of footage as the bison graze. An onboard computer controls when the device records.

The team didn’t know if their plan would work “until we actually touched the bison,” Marshall said, because they weren’t sure if the beard was all hair, or if there were rolls of skin that might get in the way.

“It wasn’t until the first bison was in the chute that we said, ‘Oh, it’s really hair!’”

Crittercam Experiment

During the roundup, 56 bison were moved into a pen, where they were vaccinated and treated for parasites. The entire process—even for those trimmed and outfitted with a GPS and/or Crittercam collar—lasted between 30 and 90 seconds.

After two weeks, the Crittercams will detach from the collars. The researchers will then pick up the cameras and find out if the experiment worked.

If the trial proves successful, the team will try to equip enough bison with Crittercams to track how their habits change with the seasons. Next time, though, Marshall won’t stand downwind as the bison get the barber treatment.

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Meet the Author
Danielle Elliot is a multimedia producer and writer who earned her chops reporting and producing for networks, start-ups, and everything in between. A graduate of the University of Maryland, she covered tennis and Olympic figure skating for a few years before earning an M.A. in Science and Health Journalism at Columbia University. Follow her on Twitter @daniellelliot.