How tracking technology is changing our understanding of animal behavior

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Biologization is the practice of attaching devices to animals to collect scientific data. For decades, basic biologgers have been used to report physiological data, including an animal’s heart rate or body temperature. But now new technologies are giving scientists more advanced insight into the behavior of animals as they move around in their natural environment undisturbed.

Tracking individual animals also gives you access to remote locations that are difficult to explore. In particular, science has only limited knowledge of marine environments – the lunar surface has been mapped and studied more extensively than our ocean floor.

But scientists recently mounted tiny video cameras on the dorsal fins of tiger sharks in the Bahamas. The footage led to the discovery of the world’s largest known seagrass ecosystem and increased the total extent of known seagrass by more than 40%. Seagrass ecosystems are important carbon stores, home to thousands of marine species and can provide a buffer against coastal erosion. Conservationists are now better equipped to protect these important ecosystems as a result of biology.

Here are four more examples of people working with animals – from dragonflies and ospreys to hedgehogs and jaguars – to better understand the behavior and abundance of wild animals around the world and how best to protect them.

1. Hedgehog protection

The population of rural hedgehogs in the UK has declined by up to 75% between 1981 and 2020. Conservationists need more information on their movement and behavior in order to make future efforts to protect this endangered species.

Between 2016 and 2019, 52 hedgehogs were fitted with GPS trackers programmed to record a hedgehog’s location every five minutes throughout the night. Tracking data indicates that male hedgehogs travel greater distances than females and often travel several kilometers to find a mate. Male hedgehogs are therefore at greater risk of road deaths. Such research could aid strategies such as building wildlife tunnels that allow hedgehogs to avoid busy roads.

Hedgehog walking on the grass at night.

Tracking data also revealed that country hedgehogs travel farther each night in search of food than city hedgehogs. This highlights the importance of urban gardens as habitats for hedgehogs 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 such as hedgehogs that do not wander far, but can be challenging when studying migratory animal species.

2. Osprey migration

The researchers studied the birds before biologging, equipping them with wing tags so that they could be individually identified from a distance. But the information about their location was that researchers found the same bird many times.

Ospreys are migratory birds of prey that feed mainly on fish. They were persecuted and became extinct in Britain in the 19th century before being reintroduced to England in 1996. However, the lack of precise data on the movement of ospreys makes it difficult to identify their wintering grounds and migration stops.

Two UK conservation charities, the RSPB and the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation, started satellite osprey tracking projects around 2007. Data on the location, orientation, height and speed of the ospreys provided scientists with information about their migration routes and wintering grounds.

Such information helped with conservation measures for ospreys throughout their migration area. These include educational programs to inspire young conservationists in the UK and The Gambia, countries on opposite ends of the osprey’s migratory route.

Biologing also revealed peculiarities in osprey behavior. For example, one bird was found to take a ride on cargo ships during its annual migration.

An osprey in flight holding a fish in its claws.

3. Flying insects

Biology devices are generally large to account for the battery. So, while attaching them to larger animals is relatively simple, studying insects required the development of miniature devices.

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

Their long-distance movement was then monitored by a network of more than 1,500 automated receiving towers spread across the American continent. The towers register biologists within a radius of 10 km.

The data revealed that the insects covered distances of up to 143 km daily at over 20 meters per second. This exceeded the known daily distances covered by the dark dragonfly. Warmer temperatures and wind assist also allowed the insects to migrate at a faster rate.

4. Tracking from space

Project Icarus involves scientists attaching transmitters to various animal species. These transmitters send data to a receiver in space, which then sends the information back to the ground station, where it is sent to the appropriate researchers.

This reduces latency in data processing and device relocation, and enables the immediate availability of behavioral and physiological data on a global scale. As of March 2021, the project tracks the movements of 15 species around the world, including Saiga antelope, fruit bats and jaguars.

This information can be used to predict the impact of environmental changes. Identifying which habitat types are favored or avoided can reveal the most productive habitats for endangered species. The animals’ behavioral response to ecological changes, such as a warmer Arctic, can also be monitored.

Data from the project could allow scientists to use specific animal species to predict disasters. For example, studies have shown that some animals showed behavioral changes immediately before the 2011 Japan earthquake.

The Icarus researchers also suggest that outbreaks of disease transmission can be identified using biologists, which could help map the spread of viruses.

Biologization has enabled the conservation of various animal species and environments by expanding our knowledge of animal behavior. But remote animal tracking could also allow humanity to better protect itself from natural disasters in the future.

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

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Louise Gentle works at Nottingham Trent University.

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