It wasn’t so long ago that tracking wild animals meant slogging through the forest with a clipboard and binoculars, hoping for a glimpse of an animal—or at least a pile of poo. But in recent years, technology has made it possible to track animal movements from afar in more and more detail, whether it’s albatrosses circling Antarctica, loggerhead turtles migrating across the Atlantic, or African elephants trying to navigate a landscape increasingly interrupted by human settlements.
Geographer James Cheshire and designer Oliver Uberti (formerly of National Geographic) have dipped into this deluge of data to create 50 beautiful and engaging maps that reveal the wanderings of animals captured by satellites, camera traps, drones, and other tools. The result is their latest book, Where the Animals Go.
The authors spoke to scores of scientists. Although a few researchers weren’t willing to share data they’d spent years or even decades collecting, many more were happy to help. Some of them are already posting their findings publicly on sites like Movebank and zoaTrack.
“They have more data than they could possibly process in a single career,” Cheshire says.
The book is filled with amazing journeys, like that of the record-setting Dutch terns who flew 90,000 kilometers from the Netherlands, down the west coast of Africa, over to Tasmania, and back home after a stay in Antarctica. It also contains the less familiar, but no less fascinating, movements of backyard bees in Germany, the vertical spiral of vultures catching rides on updrafts of warm air over France, and crocodiles defying the attempts of humans to relocate them in Australia.
As tracking devices have gotten smaller, faster, more packed with sensors, and able to store more data before running out of juice, scientists have been getting a finer-grained picture of how animals behave in the wild. “Not that long ago, scientists were getting one or two fixes a day” on the location of an animal they were tracking, Cheshire says. “Now they can get multiple fixes per second.”
At Mplala Research Centre in Kenya, anthropologist Margaret Crofoot has been taking advantage of higher sampling rates to study decision-making behavior in baboons fitted with GPS collars. When one baboon wanders off from the group, do others follow? Does it depend on the status of the individual? These are the kinds of questions Crofoot is investigating.
One series of maps in the book shows what happened one day as two low-ranking baboons wandered off from the troop. To the researchers’ surprise, a few other individuals followed them within a few minutes, and soon the whole troop of 46 animals was on the move.
If social behavior is one frontier in animal tracking research, feeding behavior is another. “When we asked researchers the question of what’s next, they all say what they really want to know is how much animals are eating, because that’s the greatest indicator of how successful they are,” Cheshire says.
Rory Wilson at the University of Swansea has pioneered several methods for tracking food consumption in penguins, for example. One is a temperature gauge that registers when a penguin’s belly fills with cold fish from the icy waters; another is a “beakometer” that gives a measure of how much a bird eats by recording how often and how wide it opens its mouth.
If there’s a single lesson that emerges from all these animal tracking studies, Uberti says, it’s that animals behave as individuals. “They don’t move around en masse like furry robots,” he says. Just like humans, other animals have individual preferences in the routes they take, what they eat, and whose company they keep. Throughout the book, Uberti and Cheshire highlight the tracks of individual animals as well as those of their troops, flocks, and pods.
Indeed, Uberti says, the impetus for Where the Animals Go was a map he made to accompany a 2007 National Geographic article on elephant poaching. The map illustrated the path of an African elephant killed by poachers. “Working on that story was the first time a map had ever engaged me in the life of an individual animal, and the shift in consciousness it provoked was irreversible,” Uberti says in an interview posted on the book publisher’s website.
Tracking technology is increasingly being used to protect animals as well as study them. In Tsavo National Park in Kenya, for example, the conservation group Save the Elephants has been using GPS collars to investigate whether elephants are using underpasses built for them when a railway was built across the park (early signs are encouraging).
Save the Elephants has also teamed up with technology companies to track elephants in real time and use data from the accelerometer in an animal’s collar (similar to the device in your smartphone that counts your steps) to send text message alerts if it slows down or stops moving—a possible indication that it’s been shot by poachers.
“If it drops below a certain threshold, they can notify law enforcement and send someone out to check on the animal,” Uberti says.