Advanced wildlife tracking devices have allowed researchers to peer into the otherwise elusive world of animals that soar to the highest of mountains and dive to great depths underwater. This sophisticated technology has provided scientists with invaluable information that will help them make better wildlife and habitat management decisions.
"It's a large field that's developing very fast," Alex Zerbini, a research biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle, said in a statement. "There are many types of tags being developed for many species of marine animals."
For instance, smaller, more durable solar-powered trackers attached to the wings of California condors and fins of humpback whales have allowed scientists to follow the animals as they soar to heights of 15,000 feet and dive 1,000 feet to underwater mountains. GPS collars have also allowed researchers to track grizzly bears as they move through Yellowstone National Park.
Monitoring Yellowstone's grizzly bears is particularly important as their main food source, whitebark pine, has declined due to an insect infestation brought on by global warming. The GPS collars help scientists determine if a bear spending a long time in a specific area was napping or guarding a dead carcass. The latter would imply the bears have found a replacement food source, which is an important factor in determining whether the Endangered Species Act protections can be lifted.
In terms of California condors, tracking data revealed the birds rely on rising currents of heated air called thermals to gain altitude. Then they switch gears to take a downhill glide, sloping in a specific direction toward a dead animal they've already fed on or to an area where they have found dead animals in the past. This, researchers say, suggests flying conditions might be the primary factor dictating where condors live and find food. In turn, this information, along with meteorological data, can be used to create maps of areas with weather conditions suitable for condors as part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife's plan to continue recovery efforts of the federally protected bird.
However, the findings have also raised more questions. For example, scientists now are interested to learn why humpback whales dive to underwater mountains.
"It's always like that in science," Zerbini added. "The more you know, the more questions you have. Which is good. Then you can develop the technology specifically to address your new questions."