Monitoring populations of endangered species has been revolutionised by conservation technology, such as the use of GPS collars.
Helen O’Neill and Dani Rabaiotti, PhD students at ZSL’s Institute of Zoology and UCL’s Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research, explain how they’re used, explore the pros and cons and discuss exciting new developments.
The Kenya Rangelands Wild Dog and Cheetah Project (KRWDCP) has been studying the wild dog population of Laikipia County in Kenya since 2001. Although much of the data collection involves many hours of on-the-ground fieldwork and observation, conservation technology has been central to our work.
KRWDCP first used GPS (Global Positioning System) collars to study the Laikipia wild dog population in 2003. The collars we use have three main components: a GPS unit, an accelerometer and VHF (Very High Frequency) radio-tracking.
What are the benefits of GPS collars?
By fitting one dog in each study pack with a GPS collar, it allows us to collect data on the daily lives of animals in much higher resolution than we could ever achieve before. We can see exactly where they have been to within a few metres, so can pinpoint key events, such as the date that a litter of pups is born, where their den is, and then – a few months later – exactly when the pack leaves the den.
The accelerometer is similar to those found in a smartphone or fitbit, and allows us to see how active the dogs have been throughout the day – something that is almost impossible to accurately measure using traditional data collection techniques. We then use VHF beacon along with an antenna and receiver to find our collared animals on the ground, so we can follow each individual dog and look at the dynamics of the pack.
The large amount of data obtained allows for analyses not possible with many other ecological datasets, so we can research increasingly complex questions, ones which could not be answered using only observational data. A key example of this is the project’s recent work looking into the effects of climate change on wild dogs – something that had never previously been considered a threat to the species.
As well as increasing the amount of data collected, the collars also remove potential biases. We can monitor the dogs in areas inaccessible to vehicles, and measure their activity levels and behaviour during the night. It’s also really useful for areas that are currently unsafe, enabling us to continue our work without putting our staff at risk.
What are the practicalities of using collars in the field?
The major issue with using GPS collars is financial as each one costs thousands of pounds. Raising money for long-term monitoring projects is always a challenge and buying new, or even just refurbishing old, collars always takes a large chunk of a project’s annual budget.
Getting collars onto study animals has also proved challenging at times. Replacing or removing collars can be planned in advance, as you are almost guaranteed to be able to find a collared animal, but getting new collars out is much more difficult.
Our study area is primarily thick acacia bushland which can make finding uncollared dogs a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack. The wild dogs only need to be a few metres away from you for them to be almost invisible. If you do find an uncollared animal, finding a vet who has time to come out and dart them can be a challenge in itself.
In older GPS collars you had to retrieve the collar to download your data, meaning there was always a risk that if you lost the dog (or the collar malfunctioned) you would lose the entire dataset. Thankfully, these days we are able to download the data using a VHF connection, although even this becomes tricky when packs are hidden away at a den.
How will the technology develop in the future?
The evolution of technology continues and is opening up lots of exciting new research opportunities. A new generation of small Iridium GPS collars are becoming available which have the potential to revolutionise the way we study some aspects of wild dog behaviour. These collars upload their data via satellite each day meaning that it is possible to monitor what the dogs are doing remotely. They will also make day-to-day monitoring of packs much simpler as we will know the areas they are in each morning, cutting down search times.
Our project is currently teaming up with the Laboratory for Animal Movement at Swansea University to fit collars kitted out with tri-axial accelerometers. These collars measure activity constantly, on three axes, providing movement data at a high enough resolution that you can see every footstep the collared wild dog makes. A phenomenal amount of data is produced in the process – on a scale not seen before on our project – meaning a super computer is needed to visualise and analyse the data.
Similar collars have already revealed new, previously unknown, information on wild dog hunting behaviours. The hope is we can examine fine scale behaviours in our study animals and that this can further reveal wild dog responses to temperature and other environmental variables.
Now we just need to raise the funds to buy and fit these state of the art collars…
This post is adapted from a longer article which appeared in ECOS: A Review of Conservation, the journal of The British Association of Nature Conservationists.
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