Crucial wildlife secrets revealed by motion tracking technology

Do you remember the folk tale about the race between the tortoise and the hare? The hare moved faster, but the slow tortoise reached the finish line first due to its perseverance.

The science of movement ecology – originated at the Israel Institute for Advanced Studies in 2006 – studies how animals, plants and microorganisms move at different stages of life and in various situations, providing information for purposes such as species conservation.

Professor Ran Nathan from the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior at Hebrew University. (Courtesy of Hebrew University)

The father of this scientific discipline, Professor Ran Nathan, director of the Minerva Center for Movement Ecology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, joined students and colleagues from 12 countries in a review of key wildlife tracking technologies that collect big data on mammalian movements. , birds, fish and other wildlife.

The review, published in Science, describes how these technologies work separately and in collaboration to reveal previously unknown information about the movement, behavior and survival of animals in the wild.

GPS tracking of critically endangered California condors, for example, provides early warnings to avoid bird collisions with wind turbines.

GPS tracking of albatrosses, meanwhile, can help locate illegal fishing vessels across vast oceans.

Using GPS tracking, Nathan and his students found that young vultures from Israel’s declining population climb up rising air columns (thermals) much less efficiently than experienced adult vultures when these thermals are driven by winds. .

“We found that circling around the core of wind-driven thermals requires practice and patience, probably acquired by young vultures only with accumulated experience,” Nathan said.

New perspectives

A unique and cost-effective new reverse GPS system called ATLAS, developed by Nathan and Professor Sivan Toledo of Tel Aviv University and their teams, simultaneously tracks dozens of wild animals with high precision at high resolution using small, inexpensive radio beacons.

ATLAS has been installed in countries such as Israel, the UK, the Netherlands and Germany to answer fundamental questions of movement ecology. Every day, scientists from Australia to Africa to America seek to use ATLAS systems at their study sites, Nathan tells ISRAEL21c.

“This sophisticated tracking system ushered in a range of exciting discoveries and new insights, including the first evidence for the existence of a cognitive map in a wild animal – a fruit bat,” Nathan said.

ATLAS has facilitated understanding of how bats instinctively practice “spatial partitioning” between adjacent colonies and the underlying mechanisms. Bats appear to be driven by spatial memory and information transfer rather than competition.

ATLAS also triggered a pioneering study in the UK linking individual variations in pheasants in their cognitive abilities and their patterns of space use.

High-resolution data from black-winged kites tracked by ATLAS, which feed on small animals such as voles, revealed “very wide variation in how long kites remain static in a feeding area, including very short and very long stops, rather unpredictable duration,” said Nathan.

“This could be explained by a predator-prey co-evolutionary race, in which kites wait for voles to emerge from their burrows to forage in fields, while voles minimize exposure in periods and habitats at risk.

(Yosef Kiat, Gabe Rozman and Ran Nathan/Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

Fish and bird survival

Another reverse GPS system, acoustic telemetry, uses acoustic beacons to track fish and other aquatic animals in rivers, lakes and seas, offering new scientific insights and guidelines to address human-caused risks .

An acoustic tracking system in European rivers has found that when endangered, downstream-migrating eels and Atlantic salmon encounter dams, their movement becomes more energy-intensive and can therefore reduce their chances of survival.

Nathan said GPS tracking provided Israeli scientists with an early warning capability about the recent bird flu outbreak that killed thousands of migrating cranes in Israel at the start of winter.

“At the first sign of death among a few dozen cranes, a much larger proportion of our GPS-equipped cranes died or were suspected of being infected given the sudden reduction in their movements and activity,” Nathan said.

“We have informed the authorities that a dramatic mortality event is coming, as it unfortunately happened, and that urgent measures must be taken.”

Later, the team tracked down the infected birds and found that some eventually recovered.

“We are now closely monitoring data from cranes wintering in Africa to watch for the possible second wave of the outbreak when millions of migratory birds will soon arrive,” Nathan said.

His lab is working with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority on an early warning system to find poisonous carcasses that vultures and other raptors eat.

Nathan says there are four types of research questions that cannot be answered without the very detailed data that new technologies allow: cognitive and personality variations in individual animals; very brief interactions between members of social groups, competing species or predators and their prey; wildlife interactions with the environment and with humans; and the variations of natural phenomena at different scales of time and space.

“We expect our findings to have major implications for basic and applied research, and to foster a wave of new collaborations across disciplines and political boundaries. We also anticipate substantial impact beyond our field of research through public environmental awareness and education,” says Nathan.

Produced in collaboration with ISRAEL21c.

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