58: Tracking animals with tech- Camera traps and GPS tags

The animal kingdom is an incredible place. It was once only enjoyed by those in the countryside or those who have gone out of their way to venture into nature and study the wildlife there. However, thanks to folks like David Attenborough who have made documentaries in recent years, we have all become more accustomed to seeing the incredible array of life that lives on our planet. Filming these documentaries, or indeed seeing and studying animals in nature isn’t always a simple task however, especially when it comes to shy or rare species. This week we will be exploring how animals can be studied and tracked with technology, from high in the skies to the bottom of the oceans. There will also be a few entertaining videos at the end. Enjoy!

Studying wildlife old-school style. Just you, a camouflage tent, binoculars and a lot of patience…

Why need tech?

There’s a few difficulties with studying the long term behaviour of animals. One of the classic ways is to watch them, perhaps sitting in some kind of camouflaged tent and looking at them through binoculars. This can work very well, but depending on what you’re studying, it can take hours, and hours and hours of sitting and waiting. Within these many hours of waiting, the animal might only pass by for 5 mins, maybe it doesn’t pass at all, or maybe when you pack up at the end of the day and go home that’s when the animal decides to appear. To deal with this people can do shifts, watching for 24 hours a day. However, you can only do this so long before you start going a little stir crazy.

There’s also another issue with the sit, wait and watch method- what if the animal knows you’re there? Many animals have sight, hearing or a sense of smell far superior to ours and will be totally aware if they’re being watched. Does this change their behaviour? Does that mean the studies on their behaviour are invalid because they are being extra cautious or curious? Sitting and watching does have it’s uses for sure, but it’s good to have an alternative too. Luckily we do, in the form of technology!

Reindeer with GPS collar (Picture: Author)

GPS

If you’re studying animal movement, say the migration of a bird or a whale, watching them is going to be pretty tricky. You can stick tags on them, or in the case of birds a numbered ring around their leg, and then if you see them again somewhere else you know it’s the same animal. However, you have no idea where it’s been between sightings A and B, and many of the animals you’ll probably never see again if they travel somewhere unexpected. This is where GPS tagging comes in handy.

GPS stands for global positioning system. It works by sending a signal to a few different satellites in space, perhaps 4 or 5 (the more the better). As it then knows its position in relation to each satellite, and it knows the position of the satellites, it can work out it’s own location on earth. Depending on the quality of the GPS device this can be accurate to meters or even centimetres. GPS tags are devices that can be attached to animals, and which track their location periodically, perhaps every hour. This is then either sent back to some main system via satellites, or is stored internally in the tag to be retrieved later.

Some GPS devices are put onto animals long term. For example, reindeer herders in northern Europe often put a collar with a GPS device on one of their lead reindeer so they can know where the herd is likely to be roaming throughout many years. In areas where there are rare species at risk of poaching, long term GPS systems can be fitted on to the animals so that they can be protected. Some of these have features which detect if the animal appears to be dead, so that if they are being poached or are badly injured a conservation team can go directly to them to help. Other GPS tags may just be used short term, to track one year of bird migration for example, and then be retrieved and removed.

GPS tags have provided lots of important behavioural data to scientists- where some whales go to have the calves (and therefore what areas needs to be protected for them), the incredible distances that some birds like Arctic Terns can migrate, and the locations of vulnerable species that need protecting to name but a few. GPS tags are great, but you can go one better.

On the left a camera trap in northern China (Picture: WWF), and on the right an image caught by a camera trap in Alaska (Picture: Joe Liebezeit)

Videos

Whilst tracking location can be useful, there are still many nuances of behaviour you miss out on, and of course you need to catch the animals in the first place in order to track them. One alternative is camera trapping. Camera traps are cameras that sit in a location on standby. When they are triggered by their sensor detecting movement, for example an Arctic fox wandering by, they switch on and start filming. When the movement goes away, they switch off again. Camera traps can be left in a location for months, and then retrieved to sort through their videos. This can involve a lot of work, trawling through videos that only caught the edge of a tail going by, or which have just been triggered by plants moving in the wind. However, they can pick up some really interesting and delightful footage too, of animals going about their daily business, undisturbed by us humans.

Most camera traps are stationary, and often have night vision to film in the dark too. Other cameras can actually be attached to animals to film their movements. This has been used on land, for examples on sheep in the Faroe Islands near Iceland, strapping the camera onto their backs. It has also been used underwater, attaching the camera via suction cups onto the backs of whales. Traps have even been made in the deep sea, where prey has been laid out in front of the camera to attract and film predators that often have never been filmed or even seen by scientists.

Often the cameras are hidden and totally ignored by animals, though occasionally a curious creature will sniff and prod at this new odd box in their territory. Then, some more playful species may even decide it’s a toy. There is a wonderful video of a polar bear playing with a mobile camera which is attached below. So perhaps it’s not always undisturbed behaviour…

Sometimes animals do notice camera equipment (Picture: Stephen Kazlowski)

In plog 25: Citizen Science with Sammy and Sîan some wonderful researchers from the University of Durham had a chat about their research which involves a lot of camera trapping, so I definitely recommend listening to their insider knowledge and experience there if you’re interested in this topic. They even share ways you can get involved in helping scientists with camera trap footage.

There is a lot we can miss out on when studying animals, either because we’re not there long enough to see it or because they act different around us, or because they’re hundreds of meters above the ground or below the sea where it’s pretty tricky for us to sit and watch. Watching animals ourselves still has its place in research, but tech has been a huge help in allowing us to understand the movements and behaviours of all kinds of creatures, sometimes giving us beautiful little snapshots of their lives. For some of those snapshots, enjoy the videos below!

Faroe Sheepview:

Polar bear finds a new toy:

Whale cam on a Blue Whale:

Hagfish defence- this isn’t quite the deep sea, only around 500m down, but it shows the defence mechanism of hagfish when attacked- secreting slime into the face of their attacker:

Music: kongano.com

Title Image: Dani Dinu

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