British festival of science in Swansea: the secrets of animal behaviour captured

Tracking device provides ‘daily diary’ for an unprecedented view into creatures’ lives

Big study: the gait of an elephant has been studied to see whether its mood can be predicted by the way it walks

Big study: the gait of an elephant has been studied to see whether its mood can be predicted by the way it walks

 

The secrets of animal behaviour are gradually being revealed, with the story being written by the animals themselves. A new kind of electronic tag is giving us an unprecedented view into their lives, even to the point of predicting the mood of an elephant.

The way an animal moves has hidden within it an underlying behaviour and the challenge is how to watch and record these movements, said Prof Rory Wilson of Swansea University.

It is easy to track what a penguin does on land but what they are up to after they dive into the sea is hidden from us. “How do you find out what an animal does? The only way is to put something on it and then track how it moves,” he said.

That something is an advanced electronic tag developed at the university by a team that includes computer scientists, behavioural scientists and electronic engineers. The group developed a tag that can capture 400 pieces of information a second, recording information such as a penguin’s position in the water, when it pauses to groom or eat and when it makes a dive to try and capture prey.

Video

“It is like having a video,” he said during a session at the ongoing British festival of science in Swansea. “It is a whole step change to what we can do.”

Prof Wilson refers to the device as the animal’s “daily diary”. “It is an electronic diary but one written by the animal.”

The tag has devices that monitor movement on a second by second basis and can do so for up to a year. Pressure sensors provide information about how deep the penguin dives for prey and other things like light levels, temperature and speed of movement are all captured.

Observation

Once the tag is retrieved computers pick the data apart, allowing the researchers to observe movements which can then be interpreted and linked to specific behaviours.

He described what a typical magellanic penguin does during a foraging expedition but the same technology can be used with almost any animal, whether in the water or on the land.

Working with colleagues around the world, his group has captured movement data for almost 100 animals, from cheetahs and whale sharks to albatrosses and golden lion tamarins. Even humans have been tracked to capture head movements as a subject negotiated an urban setting.

The gait of an elephant has been studied to see whether its mood can be predicted by the way it walks. It moves differently when moving toward or away from something desirable if driven away by the dominant female of a herd.

The tags weigh just 1.2 grams and cost about €480 to make, but they deliver “incredible resolution” for animal movements that we just cannot see by other means.