Tracking animal migrations has become easier... now what?

June 30, 2016, Santa Fe Institute
Tracking animal migrations has become easier... now what?
Credit: Santa Fe Institute

Salmon navigate across vast swaths of open ocean and a maze of branching river networks to locate their natal waters. For years, scientists have described this as heroic feats of individuals.

More recently, though, researchers have observed that salmon migrating in large groups more accurately navigate home than salmon in smaller groups. Other species also migrate en masse over land and through air, and emerging hypotheses suggest some animals take advantage of collective navigation – a kind of group decision-making that helps get them where they're going. For scientists, though, testing these ideas in the wild can be technically and logistically difficult.

During a three-day working group at SFI, roughly a dozen ecologists and computer scientists will explore ways technologies might help researchers better understand why and how individuals in migrating groups make the choices they do.

In the past, GPS tracking has allowed researchers to study the location and movements of individuals. However, these individuals act only as trace particles (samples that indicate where the group has traveled); tracking them cannot reveal how social interactions inform group movement decisions. Recent technological advances are beginning to lift this restriction. Tracking devices such as new GPS units, passive integrated transponder (PIT) tags, and camera-laden drones have become better and less expensive, and imaging software that can identify individuals in video has grown more accurate.

As a result, researchers can capture finescale movements of many animals in parallel. "We can now get the simultaneous trajectory of every individual in a group moving together in the wild. That's really an unprecedented data set," says SFI Omidyar Fellow Andrew Berdahl, who is hosting the working group with Colin Torney of the University of Exeter. "Now the challenge is to determine how individuals are interacting with each other and with the environment, and how those interactions scale up to effective -level strategies."

Explore further: Mapping the movements of birds and beasts

Related Stories

Mapping the movements of birds and beasts

February 5, 2016

Be they creatures of land, sea, or air, most animal species migrate. Whales, salmon, songbirds, and butterflies all travel thousands of kilometers to and from breeding and feeding grounds every year.

Call to citizen scientists to track wildebeests

July 9, 2015

SFI Omidyar Fellow Andrew Berdahl and his colleagues need help mapping wildebeest migration. Can you spare a few minutes to be a citizen complexity scientist and interpret their movements in images from an array of camera ...

The majority rules when baboons vote with their feet

June 18, 2015

Olive baboon troops decide where to move democratically, despite their hierarchical social order, according to a new report in Science magazine by Smithsonian researchers and colleagues. At the Mpala Research Centre in Kenya, ...

The wisdom of (smaller) crowds

June 27, 2016

When guessing the weight of an ox or estimating how many marbles fill a jar, the many have been shown to be smarter than the few. These collective displays of intelligence have been dubbed 'the wisdom of crowds,' but exactly ...

Recommended for you

Coffee-based colloids for direct solar absorption

March 22, 2019

Solar energy is one of the most promising resources to help reduce fossil fuel consumption and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions to power a sustainable future. Devices presently in use to convert solar energy into thermal ...

Paleontologists report world's biggest Tyrannosaurus rex

March 22, 2019

University of Alberta paleontologists have just reported the world's biggest Tyrannosaurus rex and the largest dinosaur skeleton ever found in Canada. The 13-metre-long T. rex, nicknamed "Scotty," lived in prehistoric Saskatchewan ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.