‘Fitbit for whales’ and other tagging technologies are helping reshape wildlife conservation
- Tagging technology has since the 1960s helped conservationists and researchers track a wide range of wildlife.
- But tags and collars can often be intrusive or invasive, acting as a source of stress for the animal and sometimes even compromising its survival.
- In recent years, researchers have developed new tag designs aimed at minimizing any impact their work may have on animals, while providing a richer array of data.
- These solutions range from radio collars made with cat collars to custom-made tags for dolphins and whales that incorporate Apple Watch-like biometric sensors.
When Alexandra Ross began her study of bridled nail-tailed wallabies in central Queensland, Australia in 2017, the wildlife ecologist had a pressing concern. The species was already classified as endangered by the Australian government, and a previous study had shown that these pint-sized kangaroo cousins (Onychogalea fraenata) panicked when fitted with heavy radio collars. Worse still, the collars sometimes snagged on a tree or fence, choking the animal to death.
“To lose even one would be really bad,” Ross told Mongabay in a video interview. “So we had to find a way to keep them from choking.”
With a meager budget making it difficult to purchase expensive necklaces, Ross continued to make a DIY necklace. She attached a radio transmitter to an elastic cat collar using small cables and super glue. The readily available cat collars were lightweight and designed for long term use. Their springy nature allowed wallabies to extricate themselves more easily without choking. The results of his study, published in the journal Australian Mammalogy in 2021, showed that 25 of the 39 collars she attached to wallabies remained in place for more than four months. Two wallabies were found to be restless, but the study determined that other factors, including the young’s pouch, also played a role in causing this stress.
Ross says his collar could be replicated for any species with a neck. The goal, she says, is to reduce stress and injury to animals during research or conservation activities. “Everything we do as scientists is intrusive,” she says. “But we try to be as unintrusive as possible with the end goal of helping them.”
Ross’ relatively inexpensive and ingenious collar is part of an ever-evolving generation of tagging and tracking devices used to study and protect wildlife. While its design may be at the rough end of the spectrum, more advanced innovations are also increasingly being developed and deployed at the more refined end. The use of widely available consumer technologies in many of them means that they can potentially be scaled up and adapted for use on many different animal species.
Estimating the impact on animals of the marking techniques used to track them is a difficult task because there are no in-depth studies on the subject. A 2011 study published in the journal Wildlife Research found that there is a “preponderance of studies focusing on the short-term effects, such as injury and behavioral changes”, that tagging and tagging techniques have on animals – including pain, l impact on maternal presence and duration of foraging trips. Although the techniques do not affect survival, the study found that “no published research has addressed other possible long-term effects.”
Despite the lack of research, scientists and conservation experts advocate the need to continue to adopt new methodologies and technologies to reduce any impact their work may have on animals. Biologist L. David Mech studied wolves (Canis lupus) in North America since 1958 and has seen first-hand how the development of new technologies has reshaped the study and conservation of wildlife.
“When the first radio [transmitter] was put on animals in the 1960s, it was totally revolutionary and changed wildlife research enormously by orders of magnitude,” he told Mongabay in a video call.
Early in his career, Mech says, it was impossible to locate a specific wolf. But that changed in November 1968 when he took a flight to track the first wolf he had radio-collared. “Suddenly I just listened for a radio signal ‘beep beep beep’, and lo and behold, down there was the wolf I had put on with a collar,” he says. “It was a virtual miracle in terms of research.”
With the advent of advanced technologies in recent years, Mech says there is a perpetual need to keep updating the methods used in conservation to minimize the trauma they could cause to animals.
“There’s still a lot we don’t know about many species, and that will require even newer technologies,” he says.
Progress is well under way. Much like how technology that was developed for human use – such as radio transmission and GPS – has proven useful for research, tracking and conservation in the past, new consumer technology innovations are also reverberate in the study of wildlife.
Marine ecologist David Haas calls the product he developed “Fitbit for Whales”. Haas developed the FaunaTag with engineer and collaborator Sam Kelly as part of his PhD. work, which studied how dolphins react physiologically when they dive to the depths of the ocean. The multi-sensor device measures motion, acoustics, depth of travel, as well as physiological factors such as heart rate, cardiac energetics, and blood oxygen level. Dolphin and whale tags usually look like darts, embedded in the fin or body of the animal. But for the FaunaTag, Haas uses a suction cup to ensure the device is as non-intrusive as possible. “We wanted to develop a non-invasive tag technology that could add to the suite of existing detection devices, but which could also give us an idea of what was going on with the physiology of the animal,” he said. he told Mongabay in a video interview.
Although it may be one of the few non-invasive devices to measure multiple parameters, adapting the technology used in consumer wearables such as the Apple Watch and Fitbit has not been an easy task. “It’s really easy to use light to measure physiology in humans, but it’s incredibly difficult to solve this problem in dolphins and whales,” says Haas. “You’re already talking about one of the most difficult animals to collect physiological data, due to its incredibly thick skin, thick layers of fat, and blood vessels.”
The parameters measured by the FaunaTag in bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops species.) were found to be consistent with measurements made in previous studies using more invasive tags. Haas and its partner are currently developing a new version of the product for terrestrial animals. They are also continuing to perform more clinical validations for the products, pending the start of manufacturing and market launch, both of which are currently stalled by the ongoing global supply chain crisis.
While he says he’s excited about the prospect of adapting consumer technology for use in wildlife study and conservation, Haas also warns of the challenges that come with it. Among the many hurdles, such devices must be built to withstand harsh wilderness environments – a far cry from what consumer clothing is normally subjected to. Additionally, the lack of Wi-Fi or cellular network coverage in the wild causes communication issues that are generally not of concern in human physiological tracking devices, at least not for an extended period of time.
“We have spent the past four years addressing the challenges of applying human medical sensor technology to animals,” says Haas. “People should and will try it, but the challenges are not trivial.”
Ross, AK, Lawes, JC, Lowry, JA & Letnic, M. (2021). DIY transmitter collar attachment for small macropods. Australian Mammalogy, 44(1), 149-152. doi:10.1071/AM20068
Walker, KA, Trites, AW, Haulena, M. and Weary, DM (2011). A review of the effects of different tagging and tagging techniques on marine mammals. Wildlife Research, 39(1), 15-30. doi:10.1071/WR10177