A Novel Use of Camera Traps to Study Demography and Life History in Wild Animals: A Case Study of Spider Monkeys (Ateles belzebuth)
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Demographic and life history data from wild populations of long-lived primate species are difficult to acquire but are critical for evaluating population viability and the success of conservation efforts. Camera trapping provides an opportunity for researchers to monitor wild animal populations indirectly and could help provide demographic and life history data in a way that demands fewer person-hours in the field, is less disruptive to the study population because it requires less direct contact, and may be cost effective. Using data on group composition collected concurrently though both direct observation and camera trap monitoring, we evaluate whether camera traps can provide reliable information on population dynamics (births, disappearances, interbirth intervals, and other demographic variables) for a wild population of white-bellied spider monkeys (Ateles belzebuth), an Endangered species. We placed camera traps focused on the sole access point used by the monkeys to visit a geophagy site located roughly in the center of one group’s home range, and we reviewed all of the photos collected at that site over a roughly 3-yr period to identify the individual monkeys recorded in the pictures. Group composition based on 2947 photos containing 3977 individual monkey images matched perfectly data collected concurrently through direct observation. The camera traps also provided estimates of the dates when individuals disappeared from the study group, and of infant births during the study. We conclude that long-term camera trap monitoring of wild populations of white-bellied spider monkeys—and other animals that are individually recognizable and that regularly visit predictable resources—can be a useful tool for monitoring their population dynamics indirectly.