Tracking animals could save Earth in future

This is a closeup of the claw of an osprey tagged for a species re-introduction program in Iowa.

Spinning tales about tracking devices for wild animals, vertebrates and invertebrates are vital to the planet. To ensure their survival, various devices are placed on these creatures to obtain and analyze invaluable information on habitat, movement, migration, mortality and more. 

The great white shark, for example, is an indicator of ocean health since it can can be tracked by a SPOT (smart position or temperature) tag mounted on the first dorsal fin. It is painless since a fin lacks nerve supply; transmissions to the satellite occur when the shark’s fin breaks the surface.  Another device is an acoustic tag which is surgically implanted in the stomach; the transmitter emits ultrasonic pings to a receiver on the ocean floor. A dart acoustic tag, less disturbing to apply, often is installed on the easily stressed hammerhead shark.

The baleen whale, a mammal as well as an indicator of ocean health, can be tagged with a noninvasive, short-term (24 hours) archival tag. The device has a suction cup, which is positioned at the end of a long stick in order to place it on the back of the whale when it is napping or eating at the surface. An accelerometer records data; the tag falls off and is retrieved and reused.

 The bear, a necessary predator and maintainer of ecosystems, can display a plastic tag in both ears; color usually provides identification or represents the year tagged. Often, a collar which emits signals — radio telemetry — is attached to the sometimes anesthetized bear. Monitoring occurs from the ground or air. This device initially brought awareness of the threatened grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park. The remote polar bear is surveyed with satellite/GPS (global positioning system) telemetry.

The honeybee, an insect, is the essential pollinator. The RFID (radio frequency identification) tag is used to track the bee’s activities.  With forceps, it is glued on the thorax (midsection) of the chilled bee — like a backpack.  Retrieved information helps farmers attract honeybees. RFID is similarly used for electronic highway toll collection.

The butterfly, another insect, likewise pollinates. The monarch is famous for its seasonal migration and is tagged to follow its journey from original capture to the point of recovery. By gently pinching the head, a small sticker tag is applied to the large discal cell on the underside of the hindwing. Flight is not hindered.

The bird, an essential wildflower pollinator, is sometimes banded (ringed) for identification by the placement of a small numbered metal or plastic ring attached to the leg; a plastic wing tag is placed on a larger bird. A golden eagle can wear a GPS transmitter strapped like a backpack to study migration. 

Undeniably, improperly placed devices can falsify information, impair movement, induce infection and even cause death.  However, researchers strive for the absolute safety of any animal — whether placing a radioactive tag on a mole, injecting a PIT (passive integrated transponder) in a snake cavity or gluing a PIT on a mussel shell.

Sadly, poachers, hunters or fishermen pursue signals transmitted from tagged creatures. Despite these transgressions, researchers save many animals by tracking.

Conservation of wild animals through acquired data ensures that they will continue to sustain ecosystems and thus sustain the planet.