I see you: Sauron and the panda

I wish we could get away from these hills! I hate them. I feel all naked on the east side, stuck up here with nothing but the dead flats between me and that Shadow yonder. There’s an Eye in it. Come on! We’ve got to get down today somehow.” JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

We’ve all had that feeling of being watched, of something that has taken an interest in what we are doing, and not perhaps with our best interests. It makes us fell uncomfortable, awkward, and we often change our behaviour in response, become more cautious, less spontaneous.

Tolkien knew the power of the watching individual. Sauron, the chief antagonist in The Lord of the Rings, is literally portrayed as the Great Eye – “The Eye was rimmed with fire, but was itself glazed, yellow as a cat’s, watchful and intent, and the black slit of its pupil opened on a pit, a window into nothing. Then the Eye began to rove, searching this way and that; and Frodo knew with certainty and horror that among the many things that it sought he himself was one.” Knowing that someone can see you wherever you are is about as big a threat as we can imagine, whether it is Sauron, your boss, or your mother! We generally hate the concept that someone is watching us.

Tolkien loved the word ‘watch’ (he used it over 330 times in the Lord of the Rings!). The watch-tower of Weathertop is the site of Frodo’s wounding, a Watcher-in-the-water nearly ends the journey at the entrance to Moria, there are Silent Watchers at the gates of Cirith Ungol, the menace of the Old Forest, Fangorn (known as the Watchwood to the Ents). Threats are usually described in the language around the feeling of being watched. And it works, it quickens the pulse of the reader. We know the feeling and respond.

Ever get that feeling that something was looking for you?

The problem with knowing that you are observed (or can be observed) is that you behave in ways that are different to your normal behaviour. Many species will respond to observation by not performing rarer sorts of behaviour, like play or reproduction, or by moving away from the observer.

Gollum knows all about the watching eye and this makes him much more cautious in his movements. “His Eye watches that way all the time. It caught Smeagol there, long ago.’ Gollum shuddered. ‘But Smeagol has used his eyes since then, yes, yes: I’ve used eyes and feet and nose since then. I know other ways. More difficult, not so quick; but better, if we don’t want Him to see. Follow Smeagol! He can take you through the marshes, through the mists, nice thick mists. Follow Smeagol very carefully, and you may go a long way, quite a long way, before He catches you, yes perhaps.’ Gollum scuttles about because he does not want to be observed.

Frodo, under the wearying influence of the ring as he stumbles through Mordor, almost completely changes his normal behaviour under the threat of constant detection. “Anxiously Sam had noted how his master’s left hand would often be raised as if to ward off a blow, or to screen his shrinking eyes from a dreadful Eye that sought to look in them. And sometimes his right hand would creep to his breast, clutching, and then slowly, as the will recovered mastery, it would be withdrawn.” If not for Sam, who does not have this anxiety, Frodo would not make it to Mt Doom.

In animal behaviour we have a similar problem. We usually want to observe an animal’s ‘normal’ behaviour but they will often change their behaviour if they can see a human watching them. Today, technology can come to our aid.

Yes, yes we realise you are the cutest species… Red Panda resting. Image from Kat Bugler.

One of the more powerful new-ish tools available to those that study animal behaviour are trail cameras. These devices allow us to observe animals in the field 24/7 (just as long as they wander past the unsleeping gaze of the lens and trigger the image capture). This is a huge improvement for behavioural studies, as we can watch without the actual presence of human observers. We have used cameras in many studies here at Lincoln, mostly in understanding the life history and behaviour of nocturnal mammalian pest species..

Recently, we used trail cameras to find out more about red panda in Nepal. Cameras were placed on red panda latrine trees (which are exactly what you are imagining). We were able to record activity patterns of wild red panda in their natural environment. Such data is useful in working out management plans to help with their conservation. We were also able to record other wild species that share their habitat.

In some of these captured images, it appeared that the red pandas were looking at the trail cameras. If they are aware of the cameras then this might alter their behaviour. Maybe they are curious and spend more time loitering in the areas? Maybe they are frightened and don’t behave in their normal way?

Kat Bugler, as part of her MSc at Lincoln University (with supervisors Adrian Paterson and James Ross), decided to examine whether red pandas were camera shy. Kat was able to get permission from zoos in New Zealand and Australia to observe their captive red panda in their enclosures. Each habitat was different but Kat was able to set up trail cameras to record behaviour around the main activity areas and platforms. She had a more powerful camera set up out of the enclosure to record behaviour of the pandas in these areas and around the trail cameras. Kat also spent time recording her own observations.

Trail camera setup in a zoo enclosure. Image from Kat Bugler.

In a paper published in Animals, Kat was able to show that there was a difference in red panda behaviour when a human observer was watching them, compared to a camera. When red panda were being watched by an individual they defecated less, ate less, moved less, played less, rested less, and slept more than when they were only being ‘watched’ by the trail cameras. Red panda were much slower to change behaviours when being observed. Interestingly, there were similar differences, if not as large, when comparing behaviour recorded by the outside camera compared to the enclosure trail cameras. The presence of people changes red panda behaviour, but so does the presence of a trail camera.

These are subtle changes. Trail cameras are hardly the eye of Sauron: “And suddenly he felt the Eye. There was an eye in the Dark Tower that did not sleep. He knew that it had become aware of his gaze. A fierce eager will was there. It leaped towards him; almost like a finger he felt it, searching for him.” Are trail cameras useful for monitoring red panda behaviour if they can cause changes in behaviour? Absolutely, they do record all of the behaviour that red pandas exhibit, they just may alter the duration and frequency of occurrence. As long as we bear that in mind then we have a great tool to use in the wilds of the Himalayas and in understanding more about the red panda.

He did not feel invisible at all, but horribly and uniquely visible; and he knew that somewhere an Eye was searching for him” Maybe Sauron would have been better off putting trail cameras on all of the paths into Mordor!


  1. There is nothing normal in being watched. Reality TV is a great example, so no creature of nature is going to behave normally

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