Where the animals go: wildlife tracking secrets revealed

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An elephant collaring team works to get a collar around Salama, a female African elephant.

The elephants who crossed the railroad

In March 2016, Save the Elephants and the Kenya Wildlife Service collared 10 elephants to assess how the animals were adapting to a new railway bisecting Tsavo national park. They wanted to see if the elephants would use a series of underpasses that the construction company had been persuaded to include. The Guardian reports that within 30 days, half of them had. Highly adaptable individuals have even been recorded passing through drainage culverts as small as three metres wide.

A map of elephant movement in east Africa from Where the Animals Go.
Source: Save the Elephants


A black-browed albatross in flight.

The albatrosses circling Antarctica

Between breeding seasons, grey-headed albatrosses take sabbaticals. Tracking data from light loggers has revealed three distinct behaviours: “residents” stay near their breeding area in the southwest Atlantic; “shorter-distance migrants” fly to the Indian Ocean and back; and “circumpolar migrants” round the entire Southern Ocean, sometimes twice. By the time a migrant reaches the Kerguelen Islands, strong tailwinds make it easier to continue circling Antarctica than to turn back and fly into the wind.

A map of albatross movement from Where the Animals Go.
Source: Richard Phillips, British Antarctic Survey


A remote camera captures an adult jaguar in Manu national park, Peru.

The jaguars taking selfies

About 20 years ago, scientists began using motion-activated camera traps to spot the elusive cats in study areas the size of Manhattan. From these sightings, they derived population estimates. Then in 2011, a GPS-collared jaguar in Peru showed that jaguars can have ranges 10 times the size of Manhattan. That meant prior camera-trap studies likely overestimated jaguar densities because their coverage areas were too small. In 2014, researchers installed 89 cameras across 650 square kilometres of Peruvian Amazon to get the full picture.

Jaguar movements tracked in Where the Animals Go.
Sources: Mathias Tobler, San Diego Zoo Global; George Powell, World Wildlife Fund


Southern Ocean elephant seals wearing sensors on their heads as they swim in the Southern Ocean, Antarctica.

The seals who map the Southern Ocean

Remote sensing tells us not only where animals go, it can also tell us about the environment an animal is moving through. To date, GPS-tagged elephant seals – with foraging dives as deep as 1,500m – have collected more than 500,000 measurements of sea temperature and ocean salinity around Antarctica and under ice shelves. Their continual data streams keep oceanographers up-to-date on the changing climate, while educating us about their daily lives.

Tracking elephant seals across the Southern Ocean in Where the Animals Go.
Sources: Mike Fedak and Clint Blight, University Of St Andrews


A griffon vulture in flight.

The vultures spiralling overhead

Because large birds are less able to sustain flapping flight, vultures must find sources of warm, rising air to make their extended daily searches for food. Wearing devices known as “daily diaries” that record location, air pressure, humidity, temperature, light level, speed, acceleration, and bearing, griffon vultures are teaching us how they stay aloft. Here we show just 3.5 minutes of flight above a village in southern France.

Vulture spirals seen in the book Where the Animals Go.
Sources: Emily Shepard, Swansea University; Olivier Duriez, University of Montpellier; Le Rocher Des Aigles Falconry Centre


A pride of baboon at Lake Nakuru national park, Kenya.

How baboons move as one

When baboons disagree on where to forage, they don’t split up; with leopards around, it is safer to stick together. So how does a troop settle a dispute? To find out, researchers in Kenya fitted 25 olive baboons with GPS collars set to record one position every second for four weeks. From more than 20m data points, they found a pattern. When the angle of disagreement between paths is small, the troop compromises and follows a middle path. If the angle is large, majority rules.

Researchers in Kenya fitted 25 olive baboons with GPS collars set to record one position every second for four weeks.
Sources: Margaret Crofoot, University of California, Davis; Damien Farine, Max Planck Institute for Ornithology


Carpenter ants in the nest with pupas and larvae, Italy.

The ants that change jobs

After gluing tiny barcodes to carpenter ants and filming them in an artificial nest for 40 days, researchers discovered distinct roles in ant society. Young ants start as nurses, tending to the queen’s brood, before becoming nest cleaners and, finally, foragers in old age. In the absence of central command, ants use age and spatial segregation to delegate tasks.

Miniature QR codes mapped the activity of individual ants in a colony.
Source: Danielle Mersch, University of Lausanne


Where the Animals Go is published by Penguin, paperback £14.99.