New tracking technology is opening up whole new insights into animal behaviour, movements and migrations. It’s an amazing time to be a conservation biologist.
The key is miniaturisation – making the location recording devices, electronic memory, power sources and attachment methods smaller and lighter. In the 1970s, radio-tracking animals was possible, but only with a device the size of small shed. Fine if you were studying moose or bears, but not phalaropes.
Now, tags as light as 5g can communicate the position of their bearer via satellites, without the biologist ever having to leave to leave their desk. Satellite tags have helped RSPB, BirdLife International and others reveal where albatrosses come into contact with long-line fishing boats in the southern oceans and risk getting caught on their baited hooks and drowned.
Satellite tags have shown us where the rare and beautiful sociable lapwing spends the rest of the year when not nesting on the Khazakh steppe (some in Sudan, some in India, some in Oman). It has also revealed important sites where they stop for a breather on migration.
At one of these previously unknown avian service stations in south-east Turkey, a flock of 3,200 sociable lapwings was discovered; at the time more than was thought to be the entire world population. It has also shown how they are putting themselves in harm’s way by passing through areas of the Middle East, where there is high hunting pressure.
Satellite tags are showing us just how far some of the UK’s struggling seabirds are having to travel from their breeding colonies to find enough food to try to raise chicks. Not surprisingly, the birds from breeding colonies that are having to travel hundreds of kilometres every day to find sand eels and sprats are often failing to breed.
Tags can also tell us what an animal is up to. Heart rates and body temperature can be measured, accelerometers can detect flapping flight in birds, contact with water can be detected, underwater dive depth and duration can be measured. In the very near future, wildlife tags will be able to swap data, send SMS texts to you, and take video of their location as the animal goes – in fact birdcams are already here.
As well as revealing amazing feats of animal endurance and behaviour, tracking technology is revealing pinch points and key threats to our wildlife. So the sooner we can learn more about how animals move around their territory, or around the globe, the better.