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Wildlife Biologists Enter the Electronic Age

Not too long ago -- and by my standards, that means the 1960s -- field biologists studied wild creatures in two basic ways. First and most importantly they sat and watched, taking field notes by the ton. Second, they stuck a zillion ID tags on the wings and legs of animals. That way, they could identify animals and see where they traveled, either by watching or recapturing them.

Then in the 1970s, a revolution took hold as ecologists began sticking radio tracking devices on animals. Wolves, bears and condors were among the first to have the tracking collars snapped around their necks. Condors also had smaller signaling devices bolted to the edges of their wings.

Some of the earliest tracking devices looked ridiculously bulky, and many were removed and destroyed by the animals that wore them. Animal rights groups bemoaned the perceived indignities. Old-school ecologists mourned the loss of "careful patient observation."

Now, almost everything about these technologies has changed for the better. Tracking devices come in every conceivable size and shape these days, and they serve an equally wide range of scientific purposes. Scientists in England have attached them to the backs of migrating butterflies; scientists in Africa have used them to help catch poachers.

This new generation of tracking devices often shoots bursts of data up to passing satellites and to Global Positioning Systems capable of real-time tracking. Sensors that once sent out nothing more than beeping sounds to reveal their location have been replaced by devices that measure just about everything -- heartbeats, altitudes, vocalizations, wing beats, temperatures and breathing rates.

Sometimes I worry about where this giant wave of technological change is taking us. For example, will there come a day when a person sits and stares at a computer screen that tracks the movements of every grizzly bear in or near Yellowstone Park? If the bear is seen straying toward a campground, will the push of a button send an electric current coursing through its body? I know it sounds absurd, but stranger things have happened.

This week, however, I'm not worried about the person in the control room. This week, I am stunned by a discovery made possible by this same technological explosion.

In South Africa, a great white shark with a tracking probe attached to its dorsal fin did something few biologists had thought it was capable of doing: it swam from South Africa to Australia and then turned and swam back home in just nine months. Were it not for the amazing device attached to the back of this shark, we wouldn't know about an even more amazing feat of nature.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

John Nielsen
John Nielsen covers environmental issues for NPR. His reports air regularly on NPR's award-winning news magazines, All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition. He also prepares documentaries for the NPR/National Geographic Radio Expeditions series, which is heard regularly on Morning Edition. Nielsen also occasionally serves as the substitute host for several NPR News programs.
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