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Amazing Wildlife Telemetry: From Swatting Mosquitoes to a Bear’s Eye View

National Geographic Society (Archived Photos)

Contributing Editor Jordan Schaul shares some recent advances in wildlife telemetry studies and some amazing video footage thanks to the Alaska Department of Fish & Game.

“Fieldwork! Don’t you love it?” The topic has come up hundreds of times.

I hate to disappoint people when I tell them that I actually prefer working with captive animals than free-ranging wildlife.  It is not because telemetry studies or scat collection are not glamorous activities–They’re not. It’s because I don’t quite have the patience for it.

I recall thinking of two possible scenarios as I sat on a rocky outcrop of an off-shore sea lion rookery in the Bay of La Paz almost two decades ago. Either technology had to improve or my attention span had to improve. It was one or the other if I was going to make a career out of doing field research.

I sat there on Los Islotes adjusting my position to be in the shade as much as possible. I wore a mosquito head net, and was clothed from head to toe.

I may have been overly dressed for the heat, but was prepared for the mosquitoes.

Hoping the wind would give me a reprieve from the insects hovering all around me, I kept re-positioning myself. Although they couldn’t make contact, the buzzing noise of these aerial bloodsuckers became quite annoying.

At the very least the wind might have cooled me from the intense heat and so I continued to shift around. In addition, it might have thwarted the gulls, frigate birds and blue and brown-footed boobies that danced in the air above me–dropping small bombs of guano on my head or in the proximity of my body.

Kodiak bears at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (Photo by Doug Lindstrand)

I listened for the barely audible radio transmitter signal which indicated whether or not an individual sea lion was active or not. Fastened by an adhesive to the head of several sub-adult sea lions were radio tags that emitted unique frequencies for each individual animal.  From the signal or its absence, we could determine in real time if the animal was diving, hauled out or engaged in some other activity.

After listening continuously for 48 hours I was disillusioned.  Actually I alternated with one other person, but none-the-less I thought, “so this is what those National Geographic documentaries aren’t showing.”

I was young and naive, but I knew then that training captive marine mammals would be more engaging for me. I had just enough experience developing a rapport with captive animals to know what I really wanted to do. Despite my first impression of telemetry studies I went on to conduct more of this kind of work with other species.

Let’s jump forward to this past summer and events that had nothing to do with me, but certainly caught my interest.

Although my attention span may have improved a bit, it seems that technology has improved a lot more.  So much so that the need to sit and listen to radio transmitters stationed by a receiver has become almost obsolete for the field biologist.

Let’s move move from pinniped carnivores to fissiped carnivores–from seal lions to bears. Instead of radio tags attached to the crown of the head, let’s attach GPS camera collars around the neck.

This is just what the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) did last year. They placed four fitted collars on grizzly bears near Glennallen in the Copper River Basin and retrieved them a few months later.

The collar cams, as they are called, record GPS locations at 15 minute intervals and record 10 second video clips. In one month, the cameras recorded almost 12,000 video clips. Samples of the ADF&G Nelchina Brown Bear Project video research can now be viewed at this link on the ADF&G website.

We gain a great deal of insight into activity budgets and behavior through observing captive animals, but innovative technology like collar cams are making this information accessible to field researches in ways they never were before.

Somethings the researchers learned were that individual bears differed greatly in predatory behavior–some feeding heavily on meat with great regularity while other bears were never observed near a kill.  Like the sea lion research much information was collected on activity budgets as they tracked individual bears with advanced telemetry equipment.