Movebank is a free set of tools to help researchers address the big data problems in wildlife tracking.
Using a transmitter attached to a tiny backpack, zoologist Roland Kays tracked an egret—a large, white, wading bird—from North Carolina as it migrated south. Then his data showed the transmitter had stopped moving. Kays wanted to find out what happened, but there was just one problem: The transmitter was in South America.
So Kays offered a reward for information on the bird and successful collection of his transmitter. Eventually, a bird watcher was able to locate it in Colombia. They found the bird died in a marsh. They collected the transmitter and sent it back by mail.
In a new study, Kays and researchers from the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior and other sites around the world published a paper in the journal Methods of Ecology and Evolution on technology they’ve developed to analyze, visualize, and store data in the new “golden age” of wildlife tracking. Scientists are already using the system, Movebank, to manage more than 3 million new data records generated each day.
Movebank includes an app that allows researchers to connect with citizen scientists and experts on the ground who can help investigate what happened to an animal if a tag goes down. Called Animal Tracker, the app allows researchers to connect with people who can upload photos of animals, make reports, and send in forensic information.
In a case study as part of the study, researchers say they were able to locate downed tags used to track 171 white storks as they migrated across multiple continents. The researchers learned that the leading cause of death varied from continent to continent. While the leading cause of death globally was electrocution from landing on power lines, the leading cause of death in Africa was hunting. They used the app for some of the stork investigation and expect it could make similar work easier in the future.
“The actual cause of death is important information to get, but it’s really hard to get when the animal is flying over the Sahara Desert,” Kays says. “Having this global system with an app lets us engage with the global community of citizen scientists.”
Here Kays, research professor at North Carolina State University and director of the Biodiversity Lab at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, explains more about the Movebank study: