When Alexandra Ross began her research on bridle wallabies in central Queensland in Australia in 2017, the wildlife ecologist had an urgent concern. The species was already categorized as endangered by the Australian government, and a previous study had shown that these little kangaroo cousins (Onychogalea fraenata) panicked when they were fitted with heavy radio collars. Worse, the collars were sometimes hooked onto a tree or fence, suffocating the animal.
“To lose even one would be very bad,” says Ross Mongabay in a video interview. “So we had to figure out a way not to choke them.”
With a meager budget that made purchasing expensive dog collars difficult, Ross went on to create a DIY dog collar. She attached a radio transmitter to an elastic cat collar using small cables and super glue. The readily available cat collars were lightweight and designed for extended use. Their elastic nature made it easier for the wallabies to wring out without choking. The results of her studypublished in the magazine Australian mammalogy in 2021, it was found that 25 of the 39 collars she attached to wallabies stayed in place for more than four months. Two wallabies were found to be agitated, but the study found that other factors, including bagging youngsters, also played a role in causing that stress.
Ross says her collar can be replicated for any species with a neck. The goal, she says, is to reduce stress and injuries in animals during research or conservation activities. “Everything we do as scientists is intrusive,” she says. “But we try to be as intrusive as possible with the end goal of helping them.”
Ross’ relatively inexpensive and ingenious collar is part of an ever-evolving generation of tagging and tracking devices used to study and protect wildlife. While her design may be on the rough side of the spectrum, more advanced innovations are also increasingly being developed and deployed on the more sophisticated side. The use of widely available consumer technology in many of them means they can potentially be scaled up and adapted for use in many different animal species.
Estimating the impact on animals of the tagging techniques used to track them is a difficult task because there are no extensive studies on the subject. A study from 2011 published in the magazine Research in the wild found that there is a “predominance of studies focusing on short-term effects, such as injuries and behavioral changes,” which have tagging and marking techniques on animals, including pain, impact on maternal presence, and duration of foraging trips. While the techniques did not affect survival, the study found that “no published research has addressed other possible long-term effects.”
Despite the lack of research, conservation scientists and experts argue for the need to continue using newer methods and technologies to reduce the potential impact of their work on animals. Biologist L. David Mech has studied wolves (Wolf) in North America since 1958 and has seen firsthand how the development of new technology has changed the study and conservation of wildlife.
“When the first radio [transmitter] was put on animals in the 1960s, it was totally revolutionary and massively changed wildlife research on the order of magnitude,” he says. Mongabay in a video call.
Early in his career, Mech says, it was impossible to find a specific wolf. But that changed in November 1968 when he took a flight to track the first wolf he had fitted with a radio collar. “All of a sudden I was listening to a ‘beep beep beep’ radio signal, and lo and behold, downstairs was the wolf I had tied up,” he says. “It was a virtual miracle in research terms.”
With the advent of more advanced technology in recent years, Mech says there is an ongoing need to keep updating the methods used in conservation to minimize the trauma they can cause to animals.
“There’s still a lot of things we don’t know about many species, and that requires even newer kinds of technology,” he says.
Progress is well underway. Just as technology developed for human use, such as radio transmission and GPS, has historically proven useful for research, tracking and conservation, newer innovations in consumer technology are also trickling into the study of wildlife.
Marine conservationist David Haas calls the product he developed ‘Fitbit for whales’. Haas developed the FaunaTag with engineer and collaborator Sam Kelly as part of his Ph.D. work, which studied how dolphins respond physiologically when they dive into the depths of the ocean. The multisensor device measures movement, acoustics, depth of travel, along with physiological factors such as heart rate, cardiac energy and blood oxygen level. Tags for dolphins and whales are typically dart-like, embedded in the animal’s fin or its body. But for the FaunaTag, Haas uses a suction cup to make sure the device is as unobtrusive as possible. “We wanted to develop non-invasive tag technology that could complement the array of existing sensor devices, but also give us an idea of what was going on with the animal’s physiology,” he says. Mongabay in a video interview.
Despite being one of the few non-invasive devices that measure multiple parameters, adapting the technology used in consumer wearables like the Apple Watch and Fitbit hasn’t been easy. “It’s very easy to use light to measure human physiology, but it’s incredibly challenging to solve that problem in dolphins and whales,” Haas says. “You’re already talking about one of the most difficult animals to collect physiological data on, because of their incredibly thick skin, thick layers of mud and blood vessels.”
The parameters measured by the FaunaTag in bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops spp.) goods found it to be consistent with measurements made in previous studies using more invasive tags. Haas and his partner are now developing a new version of the product intended for terrestrial animals. They also continue to do more clinical validation for the products as they await production start and market launch, both currently stalled by the ongoing global supply chain crisis.
While he says he’s excited about the prospect of adapting consumer technology for use in the study and conservation of wildlife, Haas also warns of the challenges that come with it. In addition to the many hurdles, such devices must be built to withstand harsh, wild environments — a far cry from what consumer wearables are normally exposed to. In addition, the lack of Wi-Fi or cellular network coverage in the wild causes communication problems that are not normally a problem with human physiological tracking devices, at least not for an extended period of time.