A 3D stereo camera system for precisely positioning animals in space and time


Here, we describe a portable stereo camera system that integrates a GPS receiver, an attitude sensor and 3D stereo photogrammetry to rapidly estimate the position of multiple animals in space and time. We demonstrate the performance of the system during a field test by simultaneously tracking the individual positions of six long-finned pilot whales, Globicephala melas. In shore-based accuracy trials, a system with a 50-cm stereo baseline had an average range estimation error of 0.09 m at a 5-m distance increasing up to 3.2 at 50 m. The system is especially useful in field situations where it is necessary to follow groups of animals travelling over relatively long distances and time periods whilst obtaining individual positions with high spatial and temporal resolution (up to 8 Hz). These positions provide quantitative estimates of a variety of key parameters and indicators for behavioural studies such as inter-animal distances, group dispersion, speed and heading. This system can additionally be integrated with other techniques such as archival tags, photo-identification methods or acoustic playback experiments to facilitate fieldwork investigating topics ranging from natural social behaviour to how animals respond to anthropogenic disturbance. By grounding observations in quantitative metrics, the system can characterize fine-scale behaviour or detect changes as a result of disturbance that might otherwise be difficult to observe.

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This work could not have been completed without valuable contributions from many different people. We are grateful to Baxter Hutchinson and Alessandro Bocconcelli for help with the fabrication and logistics. Philippe Verborgh, Pauline Gauffier, Renaud de Stephanis and the Center for Investigation and Research on Cetaceans (CIRCE) were essential for the fieldwork evaluating the system. This paper also benefitted from useful suggestions by two anonymous reviewers. Research was funded in part by the Office of Naval Research (grants N000140910528 and N000141210417) and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Marine Mammal Center. FHJ was supported by the Danish Council for Independent Research | Natural Sciences and is currently funded by the Carlsberg Foundation. PLT was supported by the Scottish Funding Council (grant HR09011) through the Marine Alliance for Science and Technology for Scotland.

Conflict of interest

The authors have no financial relationship with the sponsors.

Ethical Standards

The experiments comply with Spanish and United States laws and were approved by the WHOI Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee. Fieldwork was conducted under United States National Marine Fisheries Service permit #14241 to PLT.

Author information

Correspondence to Nicholas B. W. Macfarlane.

Additional information

Communicated by L. Z. Garamszegi

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

A 15 × speed video of interpolated geodetic position for 6 known long-finned pilot whales with a running calculation of RMS dispersion underneath. Tracks are shown in Northing and Easting with respect to the initial position of the first animal sampled. A static representation is shown in Fig. 6 (MPG 10,362 kb)


Pseudocode for location reconstruction algorithm (PDF 57 kb)


A 15 × speed video of interpolated geodetic position for 6 known long-finned pilot whales with a running calculation of RMS dispersion underneath. Tracks are shown in Northing and Easting with respect to the initial position of the first animal sampled. A static representation is shown in Fig. 6 (MPG 10,362 kb)

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Macfarlane, N.B.W., Howland, J.C., Jensen, F.H. et al. A 3D stereo camera system for precisely positioning animals in space and time. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 69, 685–693 (2015) doi:10.1007/s00265-015-1890-4

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  • Photogrammetry
  • Group cohesion
  • Collective behaviour
  • Geo-location
  • Range-finding