Conservation biology, meet the digital age

By John Upton

Strap a two-kilogram tracking device to a 40-gram wood thrush and watch where it flies. Absolutely nowhere. If researchers had tried to track the migratory patterns of Washington D.C.’s official bird in 1994 using Lotek Engineering’s then-state-of-the-art GPS_1000 animal tracker, that’s what would have happened.

Fast forward past 20 of the birds’ international migrations.

Newer iterations of the same company’s GPS tracking devices, each weighing 2 grams, were attached this summer to the backs of 125 wood thrushes. The birds are migrating to Central America, obliviously recording location data that scientists aim to retrieve and put to use in understanding why their populations are declining.

Illustrated by Perry Shirley
Illustrated by Perry Shirley

Technological marvels of the modern age, including miniaturized microchips and batteries, improved GPS devices, and Big Data are arming conservation biologists with powerful new tracking tools. The progress could barely have come at a more felicitous time, with modern life’s hazardous side effects thrusting countless wildlife populations into little-understood nosedives.

“We don’t know where most animals go,” said Peter Marra, head of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, which is involved with the wood thrush tracking study. “There are an infinite number of questions that we can ask once we can start tracking these animals throughout the year.”

To propel animal-tracking innovation, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and Smithsonian National Zoological Park are teaming up with Airbus, Intel, United Airlines, and other corporate behemoths under an initiative they’re calling Partners in the Sky. It aims to shrink tracking devices to less than 1 gram; to track tagged animals using satellites and by fitting commercial planes with receivers; and to harness burgeoning computer power to understand and predict the migrations of elephants, whales, salamanders, and other animals.

“Our ultimate goal is to track any animal, anywhere in the world, throughout its life,” Marra said.