Zooming in on mechanistic predator–prey ecology : Integrating camera traps with experimental methods to reveal the drivers of ecological interactions

Smith, Justine A.; Suraci, Justin P.; Hunter, Jennifer S.; Gaynor, Kaitlyn M.; Keller, Carson B.; Palmer, Meredith S.; Atkins, Justine L.; Castañeda, Irene; Cherry, Michael J.; Garvey, Patrick M.; Huebner, Sarah E.; Morin, Dana J.; Teckentrup, Lisa; Weterings, Martijn J.A.; Beaudrot, Lydia


Camera trap technology has galvanized the study of predator–prey ecology in wild animal communities by expanding the scale and diversity of predator–prey interactions that can be analysed. While observational data from systematic camera arrays have informed inferences on the spatiotemporal outcomes of predator–prey interactions, the capacity for observational studies to identify mechanistic drivers of species interactions is limited. Experimental study designs that utilize camera traps uniquely allow for testing hypothesized mechanisms that drive predator and prey behaviour, incorporating environmental realism not possible in the laboratory while benefiting from the distinct capacity of camera traps to generate large datasets from multiple species with minimal observer interference. However, such pairings of camera traps with experimental methods remain underutilized. We review recent advances in the experimental application of camera traps to investigate fundamental mechanisms underlying predator–prey ecology and present a conceptual guide for designing experimental camera trap studies. Only 9% of camera trap studies on predator–prey ecology in our review use experimental methods, but the application of experimental approaches is increasing. To illustrate the utility of camera trap-based experiments using a case study, we propose a study design that integrates observational and experimental techniques to test a perennial question in predator–prey ecology: how prey balance foraging and safety, as formalized by the risk allocation hypothesis. We discuss applications of camera trap-based experiments to evaluate the diversity of anthropogenic influences on wildlife communities globally. Finally, we review challenges to conducting experimental camera trap studies. Experimental camera trap studies have already begun to play an important role in understanding the predator–prey ecology of free-living animals, and such methods will become increasingly critical to quantifying drivers of community interactions in a rapidly changing world. We recommend increased application of experimental methods in the study of predator and prey responses to humans, synanthropic and invasive species, and other anthropogenic disturbances.