The Eyes of a Scientist

Photography plays a crucial role in the diverse wildlife research projects conducted by an Arizona biologist

05-01-2011 // Michael Lipske

Northern flying squirrels in Montana

“Every now and then you get lucky,” Alex Badyaev says of his portrait of northern flying squirrels—a male in amorous pursuit of a female—soaring across a moonlit sky in Montana (above). But sometimes luck requires careful planning.

Before pressing his camera’s shutter, Badyaev spent weeks charting the routes and routines of several female squirrels in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, where the University of Arizona professor and evolutionary biologist spent eight months studying the mammal family’s most sophisticated gliders. Strictly nocturnal, flying squirrels emerge after midnight—“you can set your clock by them,” says Badyaev—and follow predictable flight paths through the trees as they visit food caches.

Knowing that one female regularly soared across a certain gap in the forest canopy, Badyaev snowshoed into the woods one frigid February night under a full moon. Hoisting four strobes on a rope thrown over a spruce branch, and praying that the battery-operated flashes would fire in the subzero temperature, he set up his tripod and camera and waited. “You could hear the squirrels coming—a sort of squabble sound when they’re jumping from one tree to another—and then they got to my tree,” says the scientist. The female leapt first, followed by the male. “Of course, 99 percent of the photos didn’t include the animals.” But in the end, he got the shot.

Clockwise from top left: vagrant shrew taking down a viceroy butterfly, a male mountain bluebird, and a Harris’s antelope squirrel (middle) and a rock squirrel mobbing a western diamondback rattlesnake.

Getting the shot is key to much of Badyaev’s fieldwork. The research group he heads up in the university’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology has investigated dozens of wildlife species—from bumblebees to bats to grizzly bears. Badyaev’s abiding interest is the origin of adaptations that animals develop in response to their environment. Almost all his projects have started with intense observation of how his subjects behave in the wild. “I’ve always observed animals for a long time,” he says, “but now photography allows me to record in detail some wildlife behaviors and adaptations rarely seen by anyone before. It’s become a crucial tool in my work.”

Montana and Arizona are a long way from the Moscow apartment where Badyaev grew up and volunteered at the city’s zoo. “I was a very serious kid, very much into animals and biology,” he says. He was so serious and scientifically savvy that a leading Russian ornithologist invited him to join a long-term research expedition in the remote Kamchatka Peninsula. Badyaev was 13 years old at the time.

Decades later and now a leading scientist himself, Badyaev occasionally finds time for more personal photography projects, such as focusing on the action around a window of his research cabin in the Montana wilderness. As with his flying squirrel photos, he thought long and hard about how to record his 13-month-old son Victor watching bats and moths through the glass (below, right). Capturing the scene with his camera required setting up several remote-controlled flashes that would illuminate predators and prey without overpowering the warm window light or disturbing the animals.

Clockwise from top left: Two lesser long-nosed bats feed on pollen and nectar from a blooming agave, scientist’s son watches long-legged Myotis bats chasing satin moths, and a male house finch feeds his offspring in a nest in the spiny sanctuary of a cholla cactus.

“So everyone goes about their business,” says Badyaev. “The child watches the bats, the bats catch moths, and I just walk around with my camera and photograph.” It’s a baby picture only a biologist dad could create.

Washington, D.C., writer Michael Lipske is a regular contributor to this magazine.

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