Backing into Eden Chapter 6 – What we know about the animals

When I was a child my parents loved to sail.  We travelled from the California coast to Catalina Island on weekends, and I remember one specific trip back when the waters were full of bioluminescence. Dolphins surrounded us, jumping alongside the boat in playful streaks of light.  They might have been fairies from another world. In those days, I had no idea where they came from or where they were going.  All I knew of them was the magical moments when their lives intersected mine in the same space, when a land-being leaned over the water and water-beings leapt up into the air and we could see each other.

In the last chapter of this blog, I talked about how our ever-growing compute power is helping us gain insights into complex ecosystems.  Knowing where an elephant herd is could help save them from poachers (particularly if the poachers don’t also have the same data).  Knowing how elk herds migrate can help us plan interstates in ways that keep their freeways open to them.  But good analysis depends on having good data.  In this chapter, I’ll talk about how we’re gathering that data today, and touch on how we might gather it in the future.

We all have more data than ever, and a lot of that data is about location.  Our phones broadcast our location to emergency responders.  Many of our cars can be tracked (think LoJack or OnStar).  GPS devices live on our bicycles, our wrists, and our tablets.

We own three dogs and they are all both chipped with RFID and collared with active GPS.   Neither technology is at all invasive to the dogs, although the GPS is a little invasive to us since we need to charge the little devices attached to the dog’s collars.

Our dogs are tagged with RFID and GPS.

Larger and wilder animals are also tracked with GPS collars and human minders.  For example, bears are tracked all over the world – polar bears, black bears, grizzly bears.   We learn what they eat, what they do, what other wildlife they encounter, and how they die.  While I was researching bear tracking, I came across a really wonderful art piece called Bear71 which tracks a grizzly through her whole life.  It’s a thoughtful, poetic piece that explores the difficulties for wildlife on human lands, which is essentially a part of what this blog series is about. I recommend that you actually spend the time to look at it, and to interact with it – don’t just watch.  Use your mouse.  Or your finger.  But touch the video.

So how might this kind of data actually be useful?  A recent study of tagged white sharks identified that all of the tagged sharks mated at the same location, but the population of females split in order to have their babies.  The part of the study that discussed conservation said, “If further tracking reveals that females are philopatric [return to] to very specific pupping grounds, the preservation of genetic diversity will depend upon the proper management of both the adult females and pups that support specific nursery area.”  In other words, these researchers learned that they must keep three specific sites safe in order to protect genetic diversity in white sharks.

Perhaps even more importantly, the article about sharks (linked below) is available under a Creative Commons license.  That means that the information can be fairly easily re-used and combined with other information – and big data tools – to add to our ability to understand what we could do to protect vulnerable species. In fact, exactly this conclusion was arrived at in an article about the tracking of elephant seals. “Much of the data still needs to be analyzed… But for the first time, because of the tracking, the data exists.”

We are also using other tools to gather data.  Video and still cameras provided data about starlings, and sophisticated software analyzed the positions and behavior of specific birds.  This provided new knowledge of how bird flocks are formed and how birds stay together.  And it no longer takes a lot of money to track and monitor animals with cameras.  Wildlife cameras are now common, and can even be ordered from for a little over $200.00.  People can set them up and use them with their home computers.  In other words, you and I or our neighbors can have motion-activated cameras to watch trails or watering holes or our own backyards.

So what about the future?  Problems with animal tracking today include catching and tagging the animals, monitoring them with human labor, battery replacement, and the animals moving out of range of the home device.  In the future, animal tracking devices could be much smaller and less invasive (more similar to the ID chips under our dog’s skin than to the much larger GPS units on their collars), or may be off of the animal altogether.  If we can watch areas and monitor who and what goes through specific locations, similar to trail cameras today, and stitch all of that information together, we might be able to see how wildlife moves without touching it.  We might be able to track a grizzly (or for that matter an elephant, a whale, or a rabbit) by its movement across grids of cheap and networked cameras and sensors rather than by invading the animal and hanging something heavy and a bit obnoxious onto it.

Virtually all of the animal tracking data that we have is recent – as we track more and more animals through their full life-cycles and multiple generations, we’ll be able to learn more about how they interact. We’re still learning how to collect data and what to do with it, and of course, it’s the doing that matters.  The tsunami of data and the power of the tools we can use to understand that data is swelling.  With luck and care, we can turn the data into knowledge to help us act, to mitigate our affect on the wild world, and to give animals a better chance as surviving the next few decades.

Thank you, and please do comment on these blog posts.  I enjoy hearing from readers.  Oh, and really, do go watch Bear71.


Note that there I provided a lot of links to the research I used below, since I found this topic and the reading to be particularly interesting:

The Use of Biotelemetry in the Study of Animal Migration, Melissa Hay (Department of Biology, the University of Western Ontario) & Nebel Silke (Department of Biology, the University of Western Ontario), Nature Education, 2012:

Tracking Polar Bears by Satellite, USGS Alaska Science Center:  and realted blog post at Mapping the Marvelous by Marion,

Tracking Southern Michigan’s Black Bears, By Howard Meyerson, The Grand Rapids Press, January 14, 2013 at 9:40 AM:

Andean Bear Tracking:

National Film Board of Canada, Bear71

Two-year migration of adult female white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) reveals widely separated nursery areas and conservation concerns

Michael L Domeier* and Nicole Nasby-Lucas, Animal Biotelemtry, 2013:

A Tidal Wave of Data on Elephant Seals, By Sindya N. Bhanoo, The New York Times, May 21, 2012:

Birds of a feather… track seven neighbors to flock together, Phys Org, by Anna Azvolinsky, February 8, 2013:


Tracking A Puget Sound Orca To Northern California, OPB, Jan. 15, 2013 | AP:

2 thoughts on “Backing into Eden Chapter 6 – What we know about the animals”

  1. This is interesting. I wonder if wolves could be tagged and tracked, to help allay the fears of herders who object to the reintroduction of wolves into the United States. If they were tracked and an alarm went off somewhere–“Bbbzzzz! Wolves on the Bar Circle ranch!”–maybe they could be headed off before taking livestock.

  2. I think they are tagged and tracked – many of them. But if that data is made public, there are people who would use it to hunt them.

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