How is tracking technology transforming our understanding of animal behavior?

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Biologist is the practice of attaching devices to animals so that scientific data can be collected. For decades, basic biologists have been used to transmit physiological data, including an animal’s heart rate or body temperature. But now, new technologies are giving scientists a more advanced insight into the behavior of animals that move around intact in their natural environment.

Tracking individual animals also provides access to remote locations that are difficult to inspect. In particular, science has only limited knowledge of marine environments – the Moon’s surface has been mapped and studied more extensively than our own ocean floor.

But researchers recently placed tiny video cameras in the dorsal fins of tiger sharks in the Bahamas. The image led to the discovery of the world’s largest known seagrass ecosystem, expanding the total known seagrass coverage by more than 40%. Seagrass ecosystems are important carbon stores, home to thousands of marine species, and can act as buffers against coastal erosion. Conservationists are now in a better position to protect these important ecosystems as a result of biologizing.

Here are four more examples of people working with animals, from dragonflies and eagles to hedgehogs and jaguars, to improve our understanding of wildlife behavior and numbers around the world and how best to protect them.

1. Hedgehog protection

Rural hedgehog populations in Britain declined by up to 75% between 1981 and 2020. Environmentalists need more information about their movements and behavior to inform future efforts to conserve this endangered species.

Between 2016 and 2019, 52 hedgehogs were fitted with GPS trackers programmed to record the hedgehog’s position every five minutes during the night. Tracking data showed that male hedgehogs travel longer distances than females, often moving several kilometers to find a mate. Male hedgehogs are therefore more vulnerable to road death. Research like this can provide information for strategies such as building wildlife tunnels that enable hedgehogs to bypass busy roads.

A hedgehog walking on the grass at night.

The monitoring data also revealed that rural hedgehogs travel farther each night than urban hedgehogs in search of food. This highlights the importance of urban gardens as hedgehog habitat and supports the use of hedgehog tunnels to connect gardens.

These studies used GPS trackers that store data on the device, meaning each animal had to be recaptured to retrieve the information. This is fine for animals that don’t roam far, such as hedgehogs, but can be difficult when studying migratory animal species.

2. Osprey migration

Before biologizing, scientists studied birds by wearing wing tags so that they could be identified individually from afar. But information about their location was based on researchers finding the same bird over and over.

Ospreys are migratory birds of prey that primarily feed on fish. They were persecuted for extinction in the UK in the 1800s before being reintroduced to the UK in 1996. However, the lack of accurate data on the movement of eagles made it difficult to identify wintering areas and migratory resting places.

Two conservation organizations in the UK, the RSPB and the Roy Dennis Wildlife Trust, started their osprey satellite tracking projects around 2007. Data on an eagle’s position, direction, height, and speed provided researchers with information about their migration routes and wintering grounds.

Such information has assisted measures to protect eagles along their migration range. These include training programs to inspire young conservationists in the UK and Gambia, countries at opposite ends of the eagle’s migration route.

The biologist also revealed the oddities in the eagles’ behavior. For example, a bird has been found hitchhiking on freighters during its annual migration.

A flying eagle holding a fish in its claws.

3. Flying insects

Biorecorders are often large enough to account for a battery. So, while it was relatively easy to attach them to larger animals, studying insects required the development of miniature devices.

Insects are among the world’s smallest flying migrants – monarch butterflies and green dragonflies migrate south from Canada to the United States each year. The researchers placed small automatic radio transmitters (less than 300 mg) in these insects.

Its movements over long distances were then tracked through a network of more than 1,500 automated receiver towers spread across the Americas. The towers enroll biologists within 10km.

The data revealed that the insects traveled distances of up to 143 km each day at speeds exceeding 20 meters per second. This exceeded the known daily travel distances for the darker dragonfly. Higher temperatures and wind assistance also allowed the insects to migrate faster.

4. Space tracking

The Icarus project involves researchers attaching transmitters to various animal species. These transmitters send the data to a receiver in space, which transmits the information back to the ground station where it was sent to the relevant researchers.

This reduces latency for data processing and device repositioning and makes behavioral and physiological data instantly available on a global scale. The project has tracked the movements of 15 species worldwide since March 2021, including the Saiga Antelope, fruit bat and Jaguars.

The information can be used to predict the effects of environmental change. Determining which habitat types are chosen or avoided can reveal the most productive habitats for endangered species. Behavioral responses of animals to ecological changes, such as a warmer Arctic, can also be traced.

Data from the project could allow scientists to use specific animal species to predict disaster events. For example, research has found that some animals exhibit behavioral changes just before the 2011 earthquake in Japan.

The Icarus researchers also suggest that disease transmission points could be identified using bio-recorders that could help map the spread of viruses.

The biologist has expanded our knowledge of animal behavior, enabling the conservation of various animal species and environments. But remote animal tracking can also provide better protection for humanity from natural disasters in the future.

This article has been republished under a Creative Commons license from The Conversation. Read the original article.



Louise Gentle works at Nottingham Trent University.

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