Drone, 7 GoPro cameras, 2 Wi-Fi GoPro trigger remotes, Canon SLR, multiple camera lenses, 7 heavy tripods, 8 memory cards, 8 walkie-talkies, 7 large-capacity mobile power supplies, anemometer , Countless charging and data transmission cables, optically stable binoculars, 4TB external hard drive, all packed in two black military-grade pelican boxes. I still remember the look I got from people at the airport when I brought all my research equipment from the US to India in the summer of 2017. I look like a person who performs tasks, which is a very important task. It is almost certain that I will undergo security checks at every airport. I prepared the tone of the elevator and learned how all these gadgets can help me unlock the mystery of the flying dragon!
I am going to the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station (ARRS); the Agumbe Rainforest in the Western Ghats of Karnataka is home to many gliding lizards belonging to the genus Draco found in Asia. These magnificent and mysterious creatures are called the flying dragons of the animal kingdom, not your usual glider. They are about a palm long, launched from the treetops, spread their wings like Batman’s cloak. Once airborne, they will cleverly manipulate the jungle maze, actively control its descent in the air, and cover a distance more than 100 times its body length in less than a few seconds. When it came time to land, they descended from the fighter like a parachute, redirected themselves, slowed down, and landed on a predetermined target tree.
My goal is to understand the mystery behind their effortless and carefully choreographed sliding behavior, and gadgets are the key to unlocking this mystery.
So, what is my game plan? My team and I will build a temporary flying field and block two trees in the jungle. One is the take-off tree and the other is the landing tree. The lizard will be captured and placed on the takeoff tree. Seven GoPro cameras (five on a tripod and one on the take-off and landing trees) will simultaneously record different angles of taxiing. Each camera is connected to a power bank so that it can be continuously charged to extend the recording time. The walkie-talkie is suspended on a tripod, where I can talk and record audio recordings (ambient temperature, wind speed, animal behavior), and use audio to synchronize frames on all cameras. The Wi-Fi remote control will trigger the start/stop recording of all cameras. Cables are the underlying network that connects everything together. All these gadgets must work together so that the post-recording computer vision wizard can combine all the views and generate three-dimensional position data. This will form the basis of all my analysis.
Did it work? Like most things in life, improvisation (“jugaad”) is required. The first “jugaad” appeared with the GoPro camera. As an action camera, GoPro has super portability and robustness, able to deal with extreme (multiple) conditions. Or at least that is what I believe. In hot and humid tropical weather, when the temperature approaches 35°C, one or more cameras will always overheat and turn off automatically. Losing any camera is like losing a jigsaw puzzle-without it, the picture would be incomplete. This is bound to happen, and repair is essential. We purchased plastic panels from nearby towns to use as a personal umbrella for each camera. This did not help. We painted the board white to reflect sunlight better. This does not work either. Time is running out, especially considering that I was just a month before the monsoon hit and the lizard activity dropped sharply.
Enter Shankar CM, site manager and e-guide. After several hours of reconsidering our choices, we decided to build a personal cooling device for each camera. Thanks to Shankar’s ingenuity, we sourced computer materials from nearby towns and Bangalore. But logistics brings another problem. Without delivery service, Agumbe is not within the scope of Amazon and Flipkart. Therefore, Shankar proposed another local solution. The National Bus Director on the Bangalore-Agombe route delivered fans for us from a local store in Bangalore. Shankar spent a few days making custom circuits to use power bricks to power the fans. Look, every camera has a personal cooling system and a safety net around it to prevent any damage to the lizard from the rotating blades. Now, the power bank will charge the camera and run the fan. We conducted a test run, and now the camera can run for more than 4 hours without turning off the power.
The second “jugaad”-the dragon catcher. We have to spot (using binoculars) and capture the lizards perching on the tall betel nuts so that they can be placed on the flight site for recording. The lizard generally towers high on a tree. This is a hard work trying to find a place within reach. Shankar’s clever creation was rescued again. Using a tripod pole and metal pliers, Shankar was able to make a long pole (6m), one end connected to the pliers with a horseshoe-shaped wire, wrapped in a thick cushion and suspended with cloth. A rope connected to a horseshoe-shaped steel wire is hung on the other end. When pulled, the string will close the horseshoe and wrap it around the trunk; this will force the lizard to climb down, straight into the palm of our waiting hand! This dragon catcher may seem junior and may not be immediately recognized as a “technique”, but it turns out that this device is one of the most useful gadgets for capturing lizards in the forest for recording.
I can continue to explore the use of technology-how drones can help map jungle landscapes to measure the territory of lizards, and how to use DSLR cameras to capture qualitative behavior data and all the beautiful photos you see here. However, without a group of like-minded and curiosity people helping me set up and use gadgets that enable data collection in an unprecedented way, all this would be impossible. I might bend down and say that these gadgets have allowed me to meet a lot of people, share my love of research, and form a community that I now call the “Draco Family”.
Planav Kandelval An Indian researcher, fascinated by the workings of the natural world around us. He studied the basic processes that enable animals to move in complex spatial environments and how to apply them to practical applications. His research relies heavily on the use of consumer-grade technology as a tool for obtaining behavioral data in real-world environments.
Shankar CM specializes in customized solutions for ecological research equipment. He has worked in remote areas of India, engaged in projects related to animal monitoring and protection.
This series is a project initiated by the Nature Conservation Foundation under its Nature Communication Program to encourage natural content in all Indian languages. If you are interested in writing articles about nature and birds, please fill out this form.
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