Deciphering Animal Movements Around The World
Humans have been tracking animal movements in one way or another for centuries, even millenia; with advancements in technologies such as GPS, tracking has become easier and easier. Now, GPS and other tracking technologies are getting smaller and smaller, making it possible to non-invaseively tag smaller and smaller animals, including small birds and even larger-size insects. The tagging of more than 50,000 animals worldwide – and the constant monitoring of their movements – generates a huge amount of data. In some ways, this is a new way that we’ve connected with the natural world, a new interface through which we’re regaining some of the contact that we (ironically) lost through technological progress in the first place.
This editorial and book review from Current Biology looks at the tracking of animals from two angles: what it teaches us about animals, and how animals teaches us more about the natural world. The advances in current tracking technology tell us not only where animals are moving with better resolution than ever, we get insight into larger issues: tracking pigeons, for example, has taught us that their decision-making in the flock “is determined by individuals distinguished by their flight velocity more than by social rank,” and tracking seed dispersing birds has shown that they “move seeds between fragments of vegetation,” which “highlights the importance of smaller forests as relay stations connecting larger ones.” More broadly, the comprehensive data currently being gathered can help improve conservation decisions. With fine grain tracking we can see when animals travel outside of protected areas, and adjust decision accordingly. What’s more, we are seeing that animals’ movements can warn us about natural dangers: animal movements can be a predictor of geological events such as earthquakes or volcano eruptions.
This article is a cursory but worthwhile overview of the state of GPS tracking, and the potential ways it can benefit animals and people. It’s worth a read for wild animal advocates and conservationists, who may find a broad range of possibilties for GPS in their work. However, the author here warns that the fascinating and utilitarian aspects of tracking should be used with caution: “Using wildlife as ruthlessly as we now use domesticated species,” they say, “would run counter to the philosophy of a sustainable, environmentally friendly future.”