‘Golden age’ of animal tracking begins: Authors say information is vital for understanding biodiversity, human-animal conflict zones, predicting conservation hotspots, rebuilding and maintaining productive fisheries and understanding spread of diseases and parasites.

Research associates from the Smithsonian, Princeton University and the New York State Museum have created tagging and tracking devices that will enable scientists to monitor distinct animal behaviors in real-time scenarios. The study, conducted at Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, aimed at improving the overall environmental health of the planet. It was published in Science magazine.

In the last five years, the demand for compact GPS tags has been on the rise, replacing the once popular radio-tracking technology. GPS tags make it far easier to globally track large numbers of animals, as well as a single marked individual, using satellites. “We suggest that a golden age of animal tracking science has begun,” predicted the researchers. “The upcoming years will be a time of unprecedented, exciting discoveries.”

Roland Kays, Margaret Crofoot and Martin Wikelski – three of the study’s authors – worked collaboratively at the Smithsonian’s Barro Colorado Island Research Station in Panama and developed an Automated Radio Telemetry System (ARTS) in 2002.

The system was capable of tracking animals using towers with radio receivers. Multiple sensors are fitted into the animals to help keep track of mobility, energy utilization, overall health and even their brain waves. This information can be merged with data relating to weather and various other environmental factors, and can be used as a form of “quorum sensings.”  The information can also be used to study the complex associations between different and similar groups of animals, as well as identify environmental hazards.

Before the ARTS was established, scientists had to wander through dense tropical vegetation, tracking the radio signal from an animal’s collar via antennas. The tracker was also a cause of agitation for the animal. By the end of 2010, when the ARTS project was completed, researchers approximate tracking of about 200 animals at a single time, and visualize their movements on the Internet throughout the day.

Benefits of Animal Tracking

The team was able to successfully track various animals, including ocelots, bats, sloths, agoutis, white-faced capuchin monkeys, and even orchid bees. This new tracking technology enabled them to gain in-depth knowledge about their social lives and the integral roles they play in the evolving ecosystem of the tropical rain forest. The authors claim that this information is vital for understanding biodiversity, human-animal conflict zones, predicting conservation hotspots, rebuilding and maintaining productive fisheries and understanding the spread of diseases and parasites.