April 16th, 2013
GPS tracking is one of the easiest new ways to keep tabs on pets. Dogs and cats are fitted with monitoring devices so their owners can know where they’ve been, where they’re going, and what their habits are. Apparently pet lovers aren’t the only ones to use electronic monitoring on their furry friends. Conservationists and zoologists are now using GPS tracking to learn more about endangered species of animals. For instance, in the northeast part of Kenya a herd of rare antelope, the hirola, is being tracked in hopes of saving their breed.
Conservationists and the Zoological Society of London are concerned that the hirolas’ numbers are dwindling dangerously low— having lost almost 90% of the population in just 30 years. In hopes of learning more about the less than 500 antelope left on the planet and how to bolster their population, conservationists have fitted nine hirola of seven separate herds with GPS trackers to follow them on their migration patterns. Primarily done by studying their hoof prints and refuse left behind, the distinction of the herds was difficult to determine because lack of water in the region has caused the rare antelope to retreat to areas with more numerous watering holes and better access to food, a main reason for the hirolas’ endangered population besides poaching by hunters, removal of their natural environment, and being killed by animals who prey on their herds for food.
Thanks to GPS tracking, conservationists can now learn the information they need to know not only to hopefully protect the hirola from extinction but also to bolster their dwindling population. The tracking devices used will automatically detach from the tagged antelope in summer of 2014, but in the meantime zoologists will be able to study their normal travel habits. The GPS equipment will record the coordinates of the hirola intermittently, about three hours apart, for the year.
A similar method has been used to track endangered South African rhinos by embedding a GPS tracking chip deep within their horns. The rhinos are monitored, and based upon their activity whether sprinting, sleeping, or leaving the predetermined location, wardens are always at the ready if needed to respond to poaching attempts.
April 7th, 2013
Scientists recently gathered in Israel to discuss the potential of GPS tracking of migrating birds. They are specifically concerned, at least initially, with the migratory patterns of ospreys.
The osprey is an ideal bird for the application of GPS technology, because its migratory paths are very predictable. During its first year of life, a juvenile osprey bird flies south on its own to locate a warm spot for the winter. Since it is too young to mate, it remains in its temperate location for an entire year before migrating north in the spring. Each fall, the osprey will return to the same spot for the winter, if possible using the exact same tree to roost. In the United States, ospreys are concentrated near the East Coast and are commonly seen in the Chesapeake Bay area, the New England Coast, the Great Lakes, and Florida. Birds in this area typically travel to South America during their migratory trip. Ospreys are also known to live in Great Britain, traveling over France and arriving in the Sahara Desert for the colder months. Other groups of birds originate in central European countries such as Finland, and then travel through Israel before arriving at their destination in Cameroon or other eastern African countries.
Tracking the Ospreys
One osprey expert, Dr. Rob Bierregaard, has been utilizing GPS tracking of migrating birds since 2000. So far, he has placed the trackers on around 60 birds. Currently, he is attempting to target juvenile ospreys, but this is a difficult task since many young birds do not survive their first migration. This problem, combined with the $4,000 price tag of each transmitter, has made his project a slow process. Other researchers in the UK and Israel are also tracking birds in their areas of the world.
The Potential for the Future
These researchers hope to use GPS technology to pool information among researchers and also expand the involvement of schools. This partnership is already occurring on a small scale. For instance, schools in the Rutland district of Great Britain are partnering with schools in the country of Gambia to follow the same birds and exchange information about their observations. Researchers hope to expand these types of programs to more African schools. In addition, they dream of establishing a bird migration website similar to Google Earth that would use GPS data to track the paths of the birds.
This type of tracking technology is obviously not limited to ospreys. Its potential can be expanded to include other species of birds and even mammals. There is certainly a wealth of possibilities yet untapped in the study and application of GPS tracking of migratory birds.
March 12th, 2013
The rhinoceros is one of the most endangered animals in Africa, but GPS trackers may help to save it. The reason for the animal’s critical status is the value of its horn, which in its powdered form now rivals the price of gold. This powder is used in several traditional Asian medicines. The desire to obtain this valuable commodity has driven poachers to kill more than 500 rhinos in the past year alone.
The Rhino and Nature Preserve in South Africa has launched a new effort, called the Rhino Rescue Project, to combat this problem. Rather than try to prevent the poaching or even catch the poachers, their plan is to eliminate the demand for the rhino horn and thus remove the reason for the poaching. In order for their method to work, however, they must first catch the rhino. That task achieved, they then inject the horn of the rhino with a bright, indelible dye (like that used by banks in robberies), a GPS microchip, and a non-lethal poison (harmful to humans not the rhino). Each of these items plays its own unique role in discouraging further poaching. The dye turns the rhino’s horn pink, thus destroying its value and making it difficult to transport since the color remains even after the horn is ground to powder. The poison makes the powder of the horn useless as a medicine since it will cause nausea and vomiting in any human that ingests it. The GPS trackers enable conservationists to track the locations of the treated rhinos. Some of these trackers are programmed to send out an alarm if the rhino begins to move rapidly, as would occur if it was being pursued by poachers. This information can enable the poachers to be caught red-handed, hopefully before they successfully kill the rhino. If they do manage to get away with their prize, the GPS device contained in the horn will reveal their location to law enforcement officials.
The Rhino Rescue Project has been busy spreading the news through signage and word of mouth that rhinos have been treated in this way and are thus useless to poachers. They report that their efforts have paid off as no treated rhinos have been killed in the Preserve since they began the project. Dye, poison, and GPS trackers seem to be doing a good job of protecting the rhinos.
February 1st, 2013
Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) wildlife researchers successfully launched a study of the North Shore’s moose population. Unfortunately, moose in the area have been dying off rapidly and wildlife experts are scratching their heads. It’s been determined that hunting and natural predators can’t account for the population’s rate of decline. They managed to attach 31 moose with GPS tracking collars, but the frigid weather was a significant obstacle. On Monday, January 21st, the ground crew were facing daytime wind chills as cold as 54 below zero. Temperatures didn’t raise above zero until Thursday, Jan. 24th.
“We started the project last week near Grand Marais during a four-day stretch of extreme cold,” Lou Cornicelli said, DNR wildlife research manager. “Flight safety guidelines dictate no work can be performed below 20 degrees below zero. So despite the fact the helicopter was grounded for most of the first three days, we successfully collared and now are tracking nearly a third of the moose we plan to study.”
The study will span multiple years, hoping to track 100 moose total with GPS devices. “When you watch a collared moose disappear back into the brush, you hope data will help unravel the mortality mystery that is puzzling wildlife managers,” said Erika Butler, DNR wildlife veterinarian. . “The technology we helped develop for this project will be of use to other researchers.” The tracking collars are also attached to complex sensors, which can detect weather, heartbeat and much more.
“Signals sent from the 31 moose we have collared as of Monday afternoon are already providing us with their precise location,” Butler explained. “Sensors are recording the air temperature around them and, in some cases, their internal body temperature and whether their heart is beating. If a moose dies, we will receive a text message so that researchers stationed in the field can get there within 24 hours to allow for a necropsy and other tests to better understand the cause of death.”
February 1st, 2013
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife received a call from a rancher, who found his pregnant cow dead and surrounded by what he thought were wolves. The rancher was able to scare off the scavenging wolf pack, so the ODFW could investigate. They were able to use GPS tracking technology to confirm it was a wolf attack and even identify the wolf pack responsible.
Wolves have always been a burden on ranchers who share their territory. Penned domestic farm animals are simply too tempting to resist for wolf packs. In response, many ranchers would hunt and kill wolves near their land. Unfortunately, this tension nearly wiped out the wolf population, but wildlife protection groups intervened and wolves are making a come back. Although this is great news for wildlife protection activists, it’s understandably devastating for the ranchers who lose valuable farm animals to wolf attacks.
As it turned out, all evidence pointed to a wolf attack. The rancher correctly identified a pack of wolves as the killers before they scattered back into the wild. There were multiple tracks around the cow’s carcass and the scene indicated the struggle of a wolf attack. The ODFW contacted researchers in the area to see if any of the local wolf packs being monitored with GPS tracking devices could be identified as the culprits. Sure enough, GPS tracking data showed that OR-4, alpha of the Imnaha pack, was near the ranch between 11 p.m. Sunday through 8 a.m. Monday morning.
What an interesting age we live in, where GPS tracking collars can place wolves at the crime scene. In the same way that police might look at the tracking data of any arsonist parolees after a suspicious fire is set, the ODFW can look for tracking data for predatory wildlife. Keep an eye on our blog for more wildlife GPS tracking stories!
December 29th, 2012
OCEARCH, a scientific organization, is conducting GPS tracking of a great white shark off the coast of North Carolina. The shark has been named Mary Lee and has gained a significant fan base. OCEARCH’s website is posting the movement of Mary Lee here http://sharks-ocearch.verite.com/ for people everywhere to view. The websites servers have been overwhelmed by as many as 2,000 unique visitors in one day and 75,000 visits in one week. The sheer numbers are evidence of the public’s fascination with the apex predators of the sea.
“This is the real-life Jaws, bro,” Chris Fischer said, OCEARCH’s project manager responsible for tagging the shark. “I believe that Mary Lee is the most legendary fish caught in history.” True shark lovers cringe at the media’s portrayal of sharks as man-eating monsters, like the famous great white in Jaws. This GPS tracking project allows the public a broader perspective of a great white’s life. The shark attacks that do happen are very rare and only occur when the shark mistakes a human for their natural prey, such as a seal.
Fischer’s team uses a floating laboratory to capture mature sharks for research. The team can collect blood samples, bacteria scrapings and tissue samples from great whites. They calm the large sharks by running water into their mouths with a hose while covering their eyes with a wet cloth. While Mary Lee was captured, she was equipped with a $1,000 GPS device to monitor her movements. This device has an estimated 5-year lifespan and is activated when the shark’s fin breaches the ocean surface.
Jo O’Keefe, a marine life enthusiast from Carolina Shores, N.C. is very pleased with all the excitement this GPS tracking project has brought. He checks Mary Lee’s location three times a day and reports the shark’s location to reporters and friends. “They are thrilled to hear about Mary Lee because she’s massive,” O’Keefe explained. “I wanted the public everywhere she went to share the excitement of a macrocosmic experience.”
November 29th, 2012
We’ve reported dozens of stories demonstrating how GPS technology can be used to track wild animals. Biologists and other researchers love to use this technology because of it’s accuracy and ability to allow a view into the movements of wild animals without having to interfere with the environment. GPS tracking is especially helpful in studying the various migratory patterns of different species. With such precise tracking, researchers can determine exact distances and paths taken by these animals. This information can be used to better understand wildlife and also to protect the habitats and needs of these creatures.
A team of scientists from the Max Planick Institute for Ornithology took to the Galapagos Islands to monitor the migration patterns of the giant tortoise population. The team attached 16 adult tortoises with a GPS tracking device and a 3D acceleration monitor. The combination of technology allowed the scientists insight into the exact behavior of the species. The study followed the Galapagos giant tortoises for a two-year period. The team also studied the entire population by observing the tortoises’ size, sex and location during frequent hikes around the island. They also monitored the availability of vegetation and climate information, such as temperature.
The researchers learned that these giant tortoises travel as far as 6.2 miles inland. Around June, the large, adult males begin their long, slow trek away from the shore. Scientists believe they migrate inland in search of food. The females stay behind until they lay their eggs. Once the eggs are laid, the adult females follow the males inland. Interestingly, the smaller, younger tortoises remain at the shore all year long.
“Either the energy expenditure of this strenuous hike is too high, or there is still enough food available for the smaller animals,” Stephen Blake, one of the researchers, said. “Perhaps the younger animals can’t tolerate the wet cold climate of the higher regions.” Hopefully more research will explain more about the reasons for migration, or why some parts of the population are staying behind during migration.
November 23rd, 2012
We’ve reported dozens of instances of researchers using GPS technology to study wildlife. GPS tracking devices are attached to various wild creatures so scientists can better understand their movements and behaviors. The technology provides a unique perspective of the animals’ whereabouts without humans needing to be nearby. Wild animals are very aware of their environments and can often tell that researchers are watching them. WIth GPS technology, we can witness the movements and migration patters of wildlife from a distance.
One recent instance of GPS tracking used to study wildlife took place on Christmas Island from 2008 to 2011. The subject of the study was the coconut crab, also known as the giant robber crab. Giant robber crabs are the world’s largest land-living crab, growing up to nine pounds. Some of these crabs can live up to 60 years, almost as long as humans. For these reasons, scientists from the University of Griefswald’s Zoological Institute teamed up with researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, Germany, decided to study their movements.
It is well known that crabs have a unique way of getting around. Because of the way their legs bend, crabs walk sideways and can move very quickly in and out of crevices. With the help of GPS tracking technology, scientists now better understand much more about the movements of giant robber crabs.
Studying 55 male robber crabs, some up to 3 months at a time, researchers were surprised to find that the crabs moved much further distances inland than previously thought. According to the GPS data, along with an accelerometer attached to the crabs, the scientists were able to monitor different behavior in the crabs. Researchers believe that the crabs travel inland mainly for mating and foraging.
November 14th, 2012
At least since the release of a certain blockbuster movie, the great white shark has had a reputation as one of the planet’s most fearful residents. Even while we are mesmerized by seeing them on television, most of us have no desire whatsoever to get close enough to a great white to look into its big, black eyes. For those who are interested in following these animals and keeping up with scientists as they make brand-new discoveries about just what they do, GPS tracking has come to the rescue.
It’s not very easy to catch a great white shark, and even less easy if you intend to keep the fish alive and release it again into the wild. But researchers have done just that with 36 sharks, fitting them with small, rugged GPS trackers so that they can remotely follow their subsequent movements. This is a real breakthrough in marine research, since great whites are loners, skittish, and notoriously unfriendly. Tracking via GPS lets scientists observe patterns without disturbing the fish at all (aside from the initial catch and release, of course!).
Fortunately for us, those in charge of this project decided that offering the tracking data to the public would be a great way to reintroduce the great white shark. On the website of Ocearch, the organization supervising the project, you can view the locations of the tagged sharks on a global map. You can’t view the sharks in real time like on a webcam, but you can see where they are and where they have been. In spite of yourself, you’ll find it hard to stop playing amateur marine biologist, asking why the sharks used certain routes and what they were doing in certain areas.
In some cases, you’ll discover information that science already knows—migratory patterns and nursery areas, where baby great whites are born. But one of the tracked sharks shows an unexpected trip down the coast of the U.S. from New England to Florida, and the researchers aren’t sure why. In past decades, the public has had no opportunity to watch ongoing research in such detail, and if scientists have their wish, it will give the public a new appreciation for their hard work.
October 25th, 2012
Researchers in Jackson Hole, Wyoming are using GPS tracking devices to determine the impact of different environmental factors on the migration and nesting habits of American bald eagles. Studies have shown that many animals, such as the mule deer, pronghorn, and sage grouse, have an aversion to natural gas pads and oil drilling rigs. Bryan Bedrosian, a biologist from Craighead Beringia South, and Susan Patla, with the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish have attached solar-powered GPS tracking devices to six bald eagles in the Jackson Hole area. The birds will be monitored over the next three to four years.
“We’ll be gathering super-detailed information on where they’re nesting, going to forage and where they’re wintering,” explained Bedrosian. “The basic premise is to look at if there are any potential impacts on the movement of breeding eagles. It’ll be interesting to see if they’re selecting areas with noise buffers or light buffers.” Eagles are believed to be sensitive to noise and light created by humans, so it will be interesting to see where they are nesting. “The question is not so much if they’ve changed their habits, since we can’t answer that,” Patla said.
“Basically, what we’re doing is creating a model that says if there weren’t gas wells here, would they be using the habitat?” said Bedrosian. “There’s a couple different ideas that we have. One is looking at habitat use versus availability. … It gives you a feel for what they’re using and what they’re avoiding.” The researchers are trying to determine what habitats are acceptable to the local eagle population. “One of the potential upsides, if there’s not as many diesel generators, it could potentially reduce the impacts of sound,” Bedrosian said. “Golden eagles could increase in number. Say if there’s a carcass available, the goldens will displace the balds.”