Beyond GPS: The Next High-Tech Frontier in Wild Animal Tracking

Conventional collars show scientists where in the forest a wolf is, but new technology also tells you what the animal is doing hour by hour

KIDA, AN ALASKAN MALAMUTE, TAKES THE PLACE OF A WOLF FOR METABOLIC TESTING ON A TREADMILL. CREDIT: BETHANY AUGLIERE

KIDA, AN ALASKAN MALAMUTE, TAKES THE PLACE OF A WOLF FOR METABOLIC TESTING ON A TREADMILL. CREDIT: BETHANY AUGLIERE

For years, researchers have been able to track where wolves roam using GPS technology—but that’s about it. Without direct observation, scientists have had no way of knowing exactly what these elusive predators are up to in the wild, and what the metabolic cost of different behaviors might be.

That has begun to change, however. A team of scientists at UC Santa Cruz has now outfitted wild wolves with a new kind of high-tech collars. Using the same kinds of accelerometers found in smartphones and fitness trackers, these devices tell the scientists not only where the animals are, but also whether they’re burning up calories by running or conserving energy while resting, and when. Essentially, the wolves are keeping a diary.

“The caloric budget of an animal is sort of its life blood” says Chris Wilmers, an ecology professor at UC Santa Cruz and co-investigator on the project. “If an animal burns more calories than it’s taking in, it’s going to die,” And with too few calories, the animal also can’t reproduce. “We are able to say how many calories the animal burned minute by minute, as its moving across the landscape, carrying out all the functions it needs to do, to live and survive.”

It’s not just wolves: scientists around the world are deploying these accelerometers on fish, sharks, and whales to shed light on animal behavior. This is a hot new field, says Caleb Bryce, a doctoral student with Terrie Williams, also a co-investigator on the project. But Bryce is especially interested in the canine carnivores, which are in serious decline. Filling in the gaps of their ecology can help inform conservation efforts, says Bryce. So he wants to understand how prey and landscape features influence wolves’ movements.  “In order to figure out how much they need to eat to survive, we need to understand behaviors, and how those metabolic costs add up,” says Bryce.

To read the rest of the piece on Scientific American click here

 

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